Update: Since this story was published Dec. 6, 2022, Athulya Rajakumar has been accepted to graduate school, removing the immediate threat of deportation. The provision protecting documented dreamers like Rajakumar from deportation was not included in the National Defense Authorization Act, but a provision is under consideration in the Omnibus spending bill
AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Imagine calling a place home for your entire life, then having to make the decision to leave it behind because of the immigration system.
That’s the reality for Athulya Rajakumar, a longtime Texas resident and University of Texas Austin graduate who is making tentative plans to self-deport back to India, where she was born. This is her reality right before the Christmas holiday.
According to immigration nonprofit Improve the Dream, there are roughly 250,000 documented dreamers in the United States. Texas has about 18,000, per the nonprofit. These are people who were brought to the U.S. legally as a dependent on their parents’ work visas.
By the time a dependent turns 21 though, they’re no longer eligible to receive benefits from their parents’ visas. It’s like getting kicked off your parents’ health insurance when you turn 26.
You may have heard of undocumented dreamers who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and who are allowed to stay in the U.S. as DACA recipients.
But documented dreamers, who were brought here legally, don’t qualify for DACA, and therefore aren’t offered the same protections.
The looming date of turning 21 for documented dreamers isn’t a surprise. They’ve always known they needed to figure out a path to legal long-term U.S. citizenship. However, the problem is the country’s immigration system is so backlogged, documented dreamers eventually age out of it without finding an immediate solution to stay in America.
Negotiations in the Senate are ongoing for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a bill that’s updated every year — which has to pass by the end of the year. Advocates are hoping a provision is passed that allows documented dreamers to stay on their path to U.S. citizenship as they have their entire lives.
“I’m 23 years old, I should be excited about my goals,” Rajakumar said in an emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. “But I’m scared, because I know they’ll be taken away from me by something I cannot control.”
Rajakumar can’t believe she’s actually making tentative plans to self-deport back to India.
“I cannot tell you what it’s going look like, I have no idea what it’s going look like, and I’m dreading the day,” she said.
For the past couple decades, Rajakumar has been looking for ways to make her legal citizenship more permanent.
“[I] have been hopping from one temporary visa to another,” she said. “A student visa to a work visa, which is again coming to an end in a few weeks.”
Rajakumar is running into problems finding another employer who will sponsor her for a new work visa. Others told Reporter Jala Washington that’s a common problem.
Niranjana Save has a similar story, though she has found a temporary extension that’ll allow her to stay a while longer.
“Once I hit that three-year mark, if I don’t have a green card application going, I would have to self-deport,” Save said.
But that could take up at least 10-15 years, because of the backlog, according to dreamers. That’s why there’s such a push to get senators to support the passing of a new provision of NDAA.
“All that provision does is it ensures that children who were brought here legally, have been raised and educated here are able to stay in the green card line, and not be kicked out of the country,” Dip Patel, founder of Improve the Dream, said.
Rajakumar doesn’t want to face what could soon be her reality.
“Everyone [others like me] who have left have just been displaced since then,” she said.
Texas Sen. John Coryn said he supports passing the provision in the past. In fact, he even questioned Rajakumar during her testimony back in March and expressed sympathy.
However, when we asked his team on Tuesday if he supports passing the provisions to NDAA, they didn’t have an immediate response on his stance on it now, as time runs out.
The Senate is expected to decide on provision changes any day now.