Let me start by saying that I support a comprehensive immigration reform. I empathize with the fears, and hardships faced by documented and undocumented immigrants in this country. I’m not yet a citizen of the United States; the First Amendment right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is not available to me. I believe, however, that these concerns affect the lives of (approx. 40 million legal & 11 million illegal) people living here in the United States (14% of US population) and need to be discussed but are being overshadowed due to a lack of awareness. With my story below I wish to explain how we can come to a common understanding. At the same time I also agree that illegal immigration needs to be addressed to prevent crime and violence. My question to you, as Jose Vargas posed, is how does one define as being an American? I never really thought about it until now.
I arrived in this country at the age of 16. I come from a middle class family in Mumbai, India with modest means. While growing up my impression of America was what I got from watching shows like Friends, Simpsons and Baywatch. I learnt about the declaration of independence and the bill of rights in history class. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It is this pursuit that brought me here and made me want stay through all the difficulties I have faced. I can say that I was truly blessed with the opportunity to come to the United States when my father was offered a job posting through a company for which he had worked for 36 years. My father was only a high school graduate, never had the opportunity to attend college, due to his family and financial conditions. As all parents do he dreamed of a better future for his only child. I legally immigrated to this country on a dependent visa (L2) and was able to enroll in a New York City high school (11th grade, junior year) to continue my education. I learnt the local culture and began the process of assimilation as I did not want to be seen as being “different” in high school. I sang the national anthem, took part in sports teams, music concerts, and in all things American. However, I knew that a piece of paper (my passport) said that I was not an American. I graduated from high school with honors and began to really think about my future. My fathers’ posting was about to end in a year and so would my legal status. Now came the time to decide where I would go to college. I decided to major in Biomedical engineering a (STEM) field that I loved; however, this field was fairly new in the US itself and had no scope or opportunities back in India at that time. I applied to many universities in the northeast and was accepted to Stony Brook and City College of New York (CUNY). I chose CCNY as it was the cheapest. My father had managed to save just enough for the 4 years of my education. By the end of freshman year it was time for my father to return to India as his legal status was ending. I had to apply for a transfer of status to a student visa (F1). I graduated with honors in 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree right as the financial crisis (recession) was starting to have its effects. I applied for jobs all over the country, as well as outside the country without any avail. Even unpaid internships were hard to come by. I searched all summer with no results. Again the time came to decide my future as my legal status was ending. Do I stay and continue my higher education or do I go back home? How would I pay for my higher education? Being a non-resident meant I could not qualify for any financial aid. Also, being on a student visa did not allow me to work off-campus legally (unless it was related to my major). I had just enough money saved up over the years from tutoring in college for the first semester.
The fear and anxiety about my future at this stage was through the roof. I decided to take a chance and applied to Master’s programs in my field. Still on a student visa, I was accepted to the Master’s program at CCNY as it alone fit in my budget. While continuing my Master’s degree I kept applying for jobs and internships. My first break came when I was offered an internship at a New England Fortune 500 Surgical device company. I continued with my education while working part-time and was able to pay for the remainder of my education. I graduated with my Master’s degree in 2010 and was able to continue working at the same company on legal status provided by the student visa (OPT). At the same time I was applying for jobs all over the country. I was lucky enough to be chosen to come work at a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company in Pennsylvania. I worked for them as a contractor for 2 years, proving my worth, until they offered me a full time position and sponsorship for my legal permanent residency (green card). I am glad that I have reached this stage albeit the long process. However, It has now been 13 years since I have lived in this country, paying my share of taxes, and I am no closer to the ultimate goal of citizenship.
Now the green card process is a lengthy one and is not a guaranteed one. I still live with this anxiety and fear in the back of my mind. Since it is employment based sponsorship, if you lose your job you are out of luck. For individuals from counties like India, and China it can take anywhere from 10 – 20 years with the current immigration process to obtain a green card. After which you still need to wait a few years before you can actually apply for citizenship. So the question in front of me now is how long do I keep myself in this limbo. I came to this country when I was 16, I am almost 30 now. Add another 15 -20 years of this process and I will be 45-50, half my life would have passed by. I have not visited my home country and family in the past 5 years due to work, finances, and immigration travel restrictions posed by a tedious process.
There are many friends and acquaintances who are in similar or worse situations than mine. Families are being torn apart as a result. We’ve come here to pursue the American dream through hard work, perseverance and merit. We’re hurting. We deserve better. While the path to permanent residency or citizenship is a long one, there’re steps that can be taken to shorten the time and to help improve the situation. For example “Staple”, as in provide a process for students graduating in STEM majors from US universities to obtain quick path to permanent residency status and an eventual path to citizenship while being contributing members of this society. This will encourage highly skilled individuals to start businesses and stop the brain drain out of the US.
On the topic of illegal immigrants, especially children (who have known no other home) there should be a pathway to legalization (through employment or military service) and eventual citizenship; however, they will have to get in the back of the line after all the legal immigrant applications. If I were asked this question today, how does one define as being an American? I would answer in the words of Steven Colbert, “I look in the mirror”. For although I was born in India, America has made me what I am today and I am proud to be an American at heart, an Indian American.
Over the years many Americans have said to me why don’t you just make yourself ‘legal’ or a ‘citizen’, but most do not understand the complexity of this process (for legal residents) and the non-existence of a process (for illegal residents). I hope that with this story I have brought a little bit of understanding of the situation and I hope that this is a start to the process of having an impact or change in this society that we all live in today. I will end with a quote that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that embodies all American values on which this great country was built on, “”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she. With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””