The borders of our world cut not only across international boundaries, they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.
As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. “Migrant Voices” is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.
This is the second installment of this series, and there will be a new one each month—follow the series here and read the first installment, with the Nigerian asylee running New York City’s only homeless shelter for refugees, here.
* * *
18 years old
First-year astrophysics major at an elite American university and H-4 visa holder
There are a dizzying array of visa categories that the US offers to immigrants to our country, with an equally byzantine system of restrictions that accompany each category. The H-1B visa allows highly educated people—doctors, scientists, engineers—to come and work in the US if they are sponsored by an employer here. They and their families can stay in the country up to six years, or longer in some cases if they apply for legal permanent residence. But the families of H-1B visa holders fall into a different visa category—as Ananya does. She has an H-4 visa, the visa typically extended to the family members of H-1B visa holders.
For years, H-4 visa holders were not eligible to work. That changed in 2015, when eligible spouses of H-4 visa holders were granted Employment Authorization Documents [EADs] (a policy that the Trump administration has repeatedly threatened to end). But EADs were offered only to spouses, and not extended to the children of H1-B visa holders, and those children age out of the H-4 status when they turn 21, which leaves thousands of American-raised and -educated young people without legal status or work authorization. In a similar limbo as Dreamers, very little attention has been focused on H-4 holders and their situation. Ananya holds an H-4, but has no work authorization, and is at risk of aging out of her status in less than three years. She spoke to me via Skype from her dorm room at her University. We ended our conversation so she could make it to her next class, Economics.
My name is Ananya, I’m 18 years old, and I’m a first-year student studying astrophysics. I was born in Hyderabad, India, and I lived there up until I was 6 years old. But my family moved to the US in 2007, right before my seventh birthday, and we lived in Brooklyn for three years and then moved to Connecticut, and I’ve lived in Connecticut ever since.
My parents are both physicians. In India, they had already completed their residency, but they decided to come to the United States for a better quality of life. My mom has always been on an H1-B visa. My dad is on an H-4 visa right now. That’s the visa that I have, but I don’t have an EAD [Employment Authorization Document], so I can’t work. I don’t have a Social Security number, but I have a tax-identification number, and I have a Connecticut driver’s license. Only spouses of H-1B visa holders are eligible for the EAD—they will not consider children in any way, even if the child is 18, 19, 20 years old.
So I’ve never worked. In high school, I had a volunteer position in a research lab. That was pretty much the only thing I could do with my time in high school. There were so many programs and things I wanted to apply for as a 16- or 17-year-old looking to get into college, but nothing was available. I knew someone who knew someone who had a lab at Yale, and I was able to get this unpaid volunteer position for eight weeks. It’s pretty much the only thing I have on my résumé.
Now I’ve switched over to a different STEM field, and I want to go into physics. And, again, there are just so many things that I’m not eligible for, especially because a lot of research, and a lot of internships are somehow connected with the National Science Foundation, and they will not fund anything [for undergraduates] unless it’s for a US citizen or permanent resident.
So, the tricky thing with H-4 is that I will age out when I turn 21. Either we will have gotten our green cards by then or, if not, if my parents are still waiting, and my younger brother is still waiting, then I’m going to have to try to switch to an F-1 student visa. And I’m just learning about this very recently, but it actually might also be complicated to make that switch: They might not approve it because they see that my family’s already here, and that I’m clearly not just a student who plans to go back to their own country afterwards.
I decided to go into astrophysics when, in my last year of high school, I started reading a lot of really interesting books about the intersection of physics and philosophy. I knew that a lot of the answers I was seeking were in the realm of astrophysics, and I think studying these things—things like the cosmic microwave background and cosmic inflation—can help us look back at the early years of the universe, and get at some of those more philosophical questions about our universe.
The cosmic microwave background is the remnants of the Big Bang. It’s the heat that we can still sense in the universe through radio telescopes, so it’s like the imprint of the Big Bang that we can still study, and it provides a lot of information we can trace back to the early years of the universe. We have this clue about what exactly happened from what’s still floating around in the atmosphere.
Sometimes I feel like there’s a discrepancy… that I want to be devoting my time to studying these huge questions [about the origin of the universe] that don’t really involve people. Especially in the last couple of years, as my parents have become more open with me about our immigration status and my future, I’ve found that a lot of the most important work going on is between people—if this whole status thing works out for me, I want to be able to help people who are in the same situation as me and who are not really talked about.
No one that I’ve met before has known exactly what’s going on with my visa. No one I’ve met before has been in the exact same position, even though there are a lot of people my age who are probably going to age out of this program around the same time I will. So, there’s sort of this conflict between my academic aspirations and the situation I’m in right now. The only people I’ve met [with my immigration situation] are on anonymous online forums. I’ve looked at them, I’ve read about people’s stories, but I’ve never contacted anyone in my same position… It’s scary.
I know that there are a lot of people out there in my situation, but in the grand scheme of things, it feels like such a tiny little aspect of this gigantic immigration problem. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently: I read this quote somewhere that not every adversity is an injustice. I used to think about my immigration status and the problem that I’m facing as this huge injustice to me, but I’ve come into this perspective that, really, it’s such a tiny loophole in some immigration law that nobody ever thought about, like no one ever thought about the kids who were 19, 20, who are about to age out in a year, being really scared for what was going to happen to them and their future.
Growing up, my parents didn’t talk about it very much. My brother and I were very young. They just said, We’re waiting for a green card. We’re not permanent residents. We’re not US citizens, but we will be very soon. And I think I’ve been hearing that since I was like 12 or 13. Either at the end of middle school or the beginning of high school, I found out about the whole aging-out clause. And it felt like such a long time away then, that I had so much time. And it came back again during the college-application process.
But when I think back, I think that even 13-year-old Ananya was looking at backup options. She was figuring out how to switch to an F-1 visa, she was figuring out how to go somewhere else for a Master’s program. I remember middle-school Ananya looking up the same kind of stuff that I still do now. There’s just more urgency to it now.
If I don’t get it, I’m looking into Masters and PhD programs in Canada, the UK, Australia. A lot of them have really generous funding for international students. And I know that as time goes on those countries are also becoming more like the US in terms of work opportunities for Indian immigrants, especially if you go to one of those places and get a graduate degree—there are ways to obtain a work visa directly after graduation. So that’s an option that I definitely been thinking of recently. When my parents worry about my turning 21, they worry about my having to go back to the country that I have not been to in 15 years. A country that I have no idea how to live in.
It’s really frustrating to know that people are working toward a path for citizenship for DACA recipients who are in the exact same position that I’m in. We also were brought to this country at a very young age, had no voice in it, and then things just did not go according to plan. My parents never planned for it to take this long. And we sort of find ourselves in the same conflict right now. Except that people are very actively working toward a path for citizenship for them. And there’s really nothing being done about H-4.
Another reason I don’t like thinking about H-4 visa issues as an injustice is because it’s really hard to reconcile with the immense privilege I’ve been so lucky to have in this country. My parents are both doctors; we live very comfortably; I went to one of the most prestigious New England boarding schools for high school; and now I’m studying at one of the best universities in the world without having to worry about debt or loans—that’s a pretty great situation to find myself in, and it feels wrong to complain and ask for more. But at the same time, I do know that I am at a disadvantage simply because I was not born in this country, and that feels wrong, too. There are definitely times when I’m overwhelmed by uncertainty, frustration, and fear—and it’s much easier to see it as an injustice then—but I also have to acknowledge the constant tension between those feelings and the privilege I’m fortunate enough to have.
There are points where I really have to confront it, that I won’t be able to stay in the country. And I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I don’t want to stay in a country that doesn’t want me as badly as I want it. It sounds very cliché, but all of the American ideals have been things that really resonated with me. I’ve always really connected with a lot of the things that we would like to think defines America. And I love that, and I want to be a part of that, but I’ve never at any point in my time here felt like the country was showing the same thing back to me: that it wanted me to stay.