EDITOR’S NOTE: The names of several persons mentioned in this article have been changed in order to protect their identity.
When Fahad Paryani was 13, he wanted to sign up for a science boot camp. All he needed was his parents’ signatures to prove his family was eligible for a scholarship only offered to low-income households. Instead, he found out two things: He wouldn’t attend the boot camp and he was undocumented.
“I never knew that it was such a big deal,” he said. “Like, ‘This is weird and people are making such a big fuss about this. I guess I can’t go to the science camp.’” He needed to know more. Born in Uganda to Pakistani parents, he arrived in the United States with them in March 2001 at the age of 3. He has vague memories of a guard dog who would watch over him and his family while living in Uganda, but not much else of that time. “I don’t even remember being on a plane.”
He and his parents stayed with his cousin, aunt, and uncle in Atlanta, Ga., for a few months. The family of three was squeezed into one living room. They were starting from scratch. Eventually, his father, Asif Paryani, found work at a local Shell Gas Station and the family moved to an apartment complex called La Vista Crossings. Paryani would grow up in Atlanta.
Paryani and his little brother, Aayan, would join their father in his delivery runs to the gas station, sitting in the back of a 1999 red Toyota Sienna, Aayan tumbling side to side on the car floor along with the packages being delivered to the station. Paryani looked forward to his trips with his dad as he rarely saw him during the week. His father, a gregarious man, worked 15-hour shifts at the gas station, only taking Sundays off.
As a little kid, he would ask his parents questions about the world. Whenever they didn’t know the answer, Afifa Paryani, his mother, would take him and his brother after school to the Dekalb County Public Library. He tried to make sense of the world around him. Walking in the building, he made his way through the aisles, combing through the different books, keeping his eye on anything related to science. “I always was a curious learner. Things we didn’t necessarily cover in our class I would go look for in the library. That’s where things made sense for me,” said Paryani.
After living in the United States for five years, his father reached out to a lawyer to help him initiate the process to file for residency status. According to Paryani’s father, the lawyer who worked on their case filed the application a day late and was automatically rejected. When his father found out, he told Paryani that he had a plan to work things out. His father made it sound like a technicality, a mistake that would soon be remedied. But in the meantime, he asked him to keep their status a secret. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Paryani. “Now I am just not supposed to tell anyone this part of my life.”
It turned out to be much more than a minor setback. Six months later, the September 11 attacks took place. Following the attacks, there was heightened scrutiny of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians. “After the attacks I remember my parents telling us we couldn’t go out as much and we had to stay in for our own safety,” said Paryani. “My dad ended up changing his name as news broke out that ICE officers were deporting people from our community.” Many immigrants, thinking they were next, were forced to hide their immigration status. “Now, looking back, I understand why my parents took the actions that they did,” said Paryani. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, deportation of immigrants grew from 1.6 to 2.3 million in a decade.
Now, Paryani knew that when his father said his “papers were expired,” it meant a lot more than just not attending a science camp that summer. He started browsing online trying to make sense of his immigration status. “I kept scrolling and finding news headlines like ‘illegal alien’ or ‘undocumented immigrant,’ with such a bad connotation,” said Paryani.
In 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program was approved under the Obama administration, allowing temporary residency for non-US citizens who were brought to the country as children. But Paryani didn’t apply until a year later out of fear of making his immigration status known. “We didn’t know if it was worth risking.” But he wanted what every other high school kid typically wanted at that age: a learner’s permit. He asked his father how he could get the process started after seeing his other friends already driving their cars to school and showing off their newly issued licenses.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, a nonprofit organization that supports low-ncome immigrants, DACA allowed undocumented immigrants to qualify for employment authorization and Social Security, but eligibility for driver’s licenses depends on the state. It seemed he was at an impasse, but his father already had a plan in mind. “I remember him telling me ‘I know someone from the DMV who could help us,’” he said. “He told me in order for me to start building a paper record in this country, I would first need to get into the system.”
The sign on the building read Georgia Department of Driver Services. “The instructions of my father were very clear: ‘Once you see her don’t ask questions and she’ll handle the rest,’” he said. The woman asked for nothing more than a high school ID—just as well, as his passport from Pakistan had expired. He took the written driver’s test and he waited for several minutes before being handed a state-issued permit. Now he was officially in the system.
He was a step closer to starting college applications in his junior year, as he could now show his ID before taking the SAT. Access to higher education was limited for children who were undocumented. Each year about 65,000 undocumented immigrants who graduate from US-based high schools are faced with uncertain futures when it comes to applying for college. In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that any state that withholds funding on the basis of immigration status was acting in an unconstitutional fashion. But a limitation was found in the case, which did not apply to higher education such as colleges and universities. “I knew I couldn’t apply to any school in Georgia because of my status, but I always knew I wanted to move somewhere in California,” said Paryani.
Under DACA, many undocumented immigrants could pursue education without having the fear of being removed from the country. On September 5, 2017, President Trump ordered the termination of DACA, which would have made over 800,000 young adults eligible for deportation and the removal of education and work visas, but the order was blocked by the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the program continues to face legal disputes. “The system is simply broken,” said Liana Montecinos, who is the managing attorney at Montecinos Immigration Law. “DACA at the moment is legally at a vulnerable state.” Under a recent federal judge’s ruling, DHS can continue to accept applications for DACA but is temporarily prohibited from accepting them, leaving immigrants uncertain of their status in the US. Current recipients under the program are still entitled to the provisions offered by DACA, according to Antonio Melon, executive director at the Immigration Advocacy Services, an immigration law firm based in New York City. “Once they are in the system and are here for so long,” he said, “it would be foolish for the government to try to take them out.”
Paryani had just sent his college application a day before the November 30 deadline. “I remember writing about my undocumented status and everything it took for me to get to this point,” he said. The following January, admission letters were sent out. Paryani’s inbox had an e-mail from Berkeley—which he knew could mean one of two things.
He felt the heaviness, the weight of it all, as he sunk in front of his desk with the empty screen of his laptop monitor. “Many things were going through my head that night. I was thinking how cool it would be to make it to California,” said Paryani. He took a couple of deep breaths, composed himself, and opened the letter. “Congratulations, you’ve been nominated for the Regents and Chancellor’s Scholarship program,” the letter read. He immediately barged into his parents’ room. “Once I told them they just looked at each other not really acknowledging the acceptance and told me to go play with my friends.”
But the next day, his mom was talking to her brother over the phone about her son getting into Berkeley. “Wait… Berkeley… meaning the school in California?” his uncle said. And that is when his parents started looking more into the school, initially not realizing it was on the other side of the country. “We joke about it today as a casual thing because they had no idea what an acceptance to this school looked like,” said Paryani. His uncle had brought up the name Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto, a former president of Pakistan who attended Berkeley. “That’s when my parents started to take it seriously.”
Four years later, in 2021, he graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor’s in applied math and a concentration in mathematical biology. During his time there, he was also awarded a Fung Fellowship, a program that helped bridge his interests in health and technology. During his second year, he applied to a program called Star U at Columbia University, a two-month program designed to encourage students from diverse and underrepresented communities to look into career fields such as neuroscience and aging-related research. Paryani is now 23 years old and a full-time medical researcher at Columbia University, looking into how neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases work within the human brain.
And his DACA status was recently approved for another two years. “Having this status of undocumented comes with a lot of difficulty,” he said. “Some days are just tougher than others, but when I really sit down and think how far I’ve made it, I really do surprise myself.”