The U.S. Deports Children of Documented Immigrants—My Parents Learned This the Hard Way

Long waits for green cards mean thousands of children of documented immigrants face deportation once they turn 21 if their parents haven't yet received permanent resident status. One family shares their story.

Eti Sinha and her family
Photo: Eti Sinha

When my parents moved my twin sister, Eva, and me from our native India to the U.S. in 2004, my dad felt hopeful and my mom felt hesitant. She'd lived in the same city her whole life and worried about losing the cultural comforts of home and our family support system. Still, my dad made a compelling pitch: career opportunities, family adventures, and a world where their 7-year-old daughters were free to pursue their wildest aspirations. That tipped the scale. My mom knew that India's patriarchal society held back many brilliant women, who were expected to give up their dreams to support their husbands. She and my dad wanted more for us. So we packed our life in a few suitcases and boarded a plane to San Francisco.

In many ways, my parents' dreams came true. My father started as an international doctoral student and eventually became the CEO of a Bay-area consulting firm. My mom forged her own career and is now a university admissions director. We spent our childhood years biking around Golden Gate Park, skateboarding the city's iconic hills, and soaking up the city's global languages and traditions. And our parents' dreams for us came true, too. Today my sister works in Silicon Valley and I am a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at Cornell University, working to help advance early cancer detection. But we're living our dreams on borrowed time.

In 2016, I was meeting with my international student advisor at the University of California in San Diego, and they explained that my sister and I could soon be deported. I was flummoxed. We were—and had always been—documented immigrants.But as I learned that day, if our parents couldn't get green cards before we turned 21—a mere 10 months away—then our legal status expired and we'd be forced to self-deport. As it turns out, we are among 250,000 "documented Dreamers" currently stuck in the same terrible situation.

I still remember relaying the news to my parents. They were shattered. But gripped by fear and fury, Eva and I didn't care. We screamed at them, blaming them for a situation they clearly couldn't control. We'd fight, our mom would cry, and our dad, who felt guilty and responsible, tried his best to hide his emotions. He reassured us that he'd find a way to fix things.

Because my parents had applied for green cards. They'd done exactly what so many immigrant friends had done before them: they submitted their paperwork and expected their permanent residency status to become official in a matter of four or five years. But nobody, not even our lawyers, predicted green card wait times would skyrocket, particularly for Indian nationals. That's because green cards are allocated evenly across countries, so the wait times for receiving permanent residency among people from highly populated countries have become many decades long. My parents' initial green card applications were approved years ago, but they had to wait in line for an actual green card to become available. With each passing year, their lawyer reassured them that they would receive their green card "any day now." But then my sister and I turned 21 and got kicked out of that line completely.

Since we turned 21 in October 2017, my sister has been able to stay in the United States on a temporary work visa from her employer. I've been able to stay on an international student visa. But these visas both expire in a few years. We've lived in the United States for nearly two decades. It's terrifying to think that I may need to rebuild my life in a foreign country, apart from my family, apart from my significant other, and where there are fewer opportunities in my industry, especially for women.

It's also been horrible to watch my parents face the consequences of the fateful decision they made so many years ago. They brought us here with tremendous optimism and hope. I can't imagine the guilt they feel now—and, maybe worse, their pain at their inability to fix the problem. Parents want to believe they can fix anything, from scraped knees to hurt feelings. When a child (even an adult child!) makes a poor decision, parents swoop in with guidance and love. But what happens when their child encounters a problem they can't fix? A systemic problem? I am that child. As much as my heart breaks for myself and my sister, it breaks for my parents, too.

An Unfair Family Separation

Meanwhile, this country's immigration system has upended our lives in another tragic way. After years of not visiting India, my family took a trip in late 2019 to attend a family wedding. But on the way home, my dad's return visa stamp was delayed without explanation. That was two years ago. He's been denied reentry to the U.S. this entire time. My mom has struggled, enduring the entire pandemic without her partner. Meanwhile, my dad has been running his company from abroad, first from India, then from Europe, most recently from Canada in an attempt to reduce the painful time zone difference. Our lawyer says all we can do is wait and follow up with the State Department every two months.

And then, as if things couldn't get any more absurd, they did. In October 2020, my parents' green card applications became current. They'd reached the front of the line. Only one last round of paperwork, a biometrics appointment, and a final interview were required. My mom can complete these final steps, but my dad can't. He must be physically in the United States—but the United States won't let him back in.

Of course, even if my mom does get her green card, it won't extend to me or my sister, her daughters. We lost our place in line the moment we turned 21. If I'm lucky, after graduating with my Ph.D., I may be able to secure sponsorship for a visa, but I will be at the back of the same line that my parents are still waiting in for 11 years and counting. That line has only gotten longer—we're talking multiple decades, up to 150 years by some estimates—if I were to join it tomorrow.

There's no logic to this system, and it benefits nobody. It has strained our family in ways we never could have imagined. Throughout our time in America, we've heard the refrain delivered to immigrants, "Follow the rules. Wait your turn in line." We did all of these things, and yet here we are. I've seen our happy-go-lucky family struggle through some dark times. In the months leading up to our twenty-first birthdays, my sister and I fell into a deep depression. Our grades dropped and we fought constantly with our parents, who cycled through feelings of guilt, sadness, regret, and helplessness. They left India to give their daughters more freedom, only to unknowingly deliver us into a system of constraints.

A Hopeful Future

I am constantly imagining two futures, the one I grew up believing was mine, and the one I may have to build on my own in a foreign land. In the American future, I get to stay close to my tight-knit family. We enjoy lazy holidays together, eating breakfast at the table in our pajamas, celebrating milestones like weddings, retirements, babies, and all the things many young adults take for granted. In the other future—in which my sister and I are deported to India—we do all of this over Zoom from opposite sides of the globe. It makes my heart ache.

In the meantime, I'm trying to do all I can to make my American future a reality. I'm taking action, not just for myself but for my parents—and the thousands of families like ours. In 2021, I joined Improve the Dream, a nationwide organization of documented Dreamers. We've been telling Congress about our plight, and there have been two positive developments. The House of Representatives recently passed the America Competes Act, which would allow foreign-born STEM Ph.D.s to more easily secure a green card. Ultimately, though, we need a bill like the America's Children Act, which creates a pathway to permanent residency for documented children who are raised and educated in the United States. Until these bills become law, we will live in limbo. Many of us will be ejected from the country we call home.

I want to tell my parents once and for all that this situation isn't their fault. They are amazing parents who got caught up in a broken system. For all their love, for all their sacrifice, they deserve better.

Eti Sinha is a biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University where she is studying early cancer detection. She is the New York state liaison for Improve The Dream, a youth-led organization that supports and advocates for documented Dreamers.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles