Love, Life Stories

Dear immigration services: you’ve screwed me and my family over

I’m one of the immigrants that the U.S. government loves to brag about. But in the land of the free, we've lost our freedom.

During my junior year of high school, I found myself in the principal’s office for the first time in my life. Frantically, I ran through potential reasons I could be there, but came up with nothing, and instead resorted to anxiously tapping my foot against my chair as I waited. When my principal finally came into the room, however, he looked more uncomfortable than I did—and that was how I knew that something was very wrong with this situation.

Clearing his throat gracelessly, he began, “I’m very sorry about this, Namrata, but unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to submit your application to the finalist round of the National Merit Scholarship.”  

For a second, I was dumbstruck. Had my scores changed? Had my teachers refused to write recommendations? What could possibly merit such a decision on his part?

“It’s not anything you did,” he hastily continued. “It’s just—well—you’re not from here.”

At this point in my life, I had lived in America for over eleven years. Ever since I could remember, I had started my mornings by saying, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” What my principal said took a second to register. What he meant, of course, was that I was here thanks entirely to my father’s work and an H1-B visa issued to him to allow him to practice radiology in the U.S. A visa that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation rendered as too foreign, too un-American, to be considered a viable candidate for the their “diverse” scholarship.

I knew early on that I wouldn’t be able to get financial aid from the government, so the only way I could go to the universities I wanted to would be to somehow, miraculously, earn a full ride. It seemed, in that moment, sitting in my principal’s office, silent tears prickling my eyes and blurring my vision, an impossible task.

Despite being ineligible for not only the National Merit Scholarship, but almost every single financial aid package and merit-based scholarship, I managed to attend college because I worked ten times harder than most people. I earned a perfect score on my ACTs, graduated magna cum laude from one of the most competitive high schools in the nation, and won a full-ride merit scholarship from Emory University.

Yes, I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m one of the immigrants that the U.S. government loves to brag about. I’m excelling, I’m flourishing, I’m proving that we can break down obstacles to become thriving members of society. And I’m exactly the sort of immigrant that the U.S. government has screwed over. Today, immigration likely the most hotly-contested topic in U.S. politics. Both sides love to talk about it in very loud voices: we should build a wall, we should welcome migrants, we should keep them out and stop them from stealing our jobs, etc. But amid all the sound and fury surrounding the debate, one key population of immigrants is continually forgotten. That’s us. The Asian immigrants who fix your computers, design your technology, and cut open your brains. The model minority. Why is no one talking about us? In these times, in this election season, our lives are on the line and there’s no one advocating for us. Now, more than ever, someone needs to tell our story.

When I was just eight years old, my family moved to Seattle, Washington. My father had received a prestigious Radiology Fellowship there, and we couldn’t wait to start our new lives in the place we hoped would be the land of opportunities. And here we are, eleven years later—my father, the Chief of his department at Texas Children’s Hospital, has yet to receive a Green Card. He’s published papers, received promotions, done everything he should have and more. He is, to reference my sister’s nickname for him when she was a toddler, “the best radiologist in the world.” Well, he may be. He is to us, anyway. But according to the U.S.—by which I mean, according to someone in the USCIS office who apparently possesses the rare, uncanny ability to judge a person’s worth, potential contributions to the country, and level of exceptionalism based on ink and paper—he’s not the level of “extraordinary” that the EB-1 Green Card requires.  

When my mother was young, in India, she earned the incredible recognition of being an National Talent Search Examination Scholar, and won a merit-based position into Trivandrum State Medical College. In a country of over a billion people, my mother stood out as one of the brightest, most promising lights the nation had to offer. In America, she’s legally barred from passing medicine, despite passing her qualifying USMILE exams with flying colors. Why? Because she’s a “dependent” on my father’s H1-B visa, and thus unable to work. This dependent status, technically referred to as an H-4 visa, but more aptly called a relic of age-old patriarchy, is granted to the partners and children of those with an H1-B visa, and imposes misogynistic, Victorian restrictions on its holders.

Indian women receive almost 80% of H-4 visas. These women, based solely on their marital statuses, are prohibited by law from working, starting a business, or obtaining a social security number. They’re reduced from independent, brilliant working women—like my mother was when she slayed as a doctor in her hometown—to a state of childlike dependence and helplessness when they come to the U.S. They depend on their husbands for everything, from economic to political to social needs. I’ve seen the physical, mental, and psychological toll this governmental regulation has taken on my mother. Although she’s still as sharp as ever, she feels defeated and hopeless; we’ve been desperately hoping for so long that my father will receive a Green Card, for a plethora of reasons, including the possibility of my mother working again. But it’s been years, and she’s out-of-touch with the recent, revolutionary changes the medical field has undergone in the years that she’s been caged. Because she’s an incredibly strong woman, my mother has channeled her energy into other things—raising us, serving as a translator and editor for Indian books. But, thanks to U.S. regulations, she can’t do the one thing she’s worked her entire life towards doing. In the land of the free, my mother lost her freedom.

This is just the surface. There’s so much more to this issue than could possibly fit within the constraints of one article.

The government calls us “aliens.” Our licenses are vertical instead of horizontal, and US immigration officers at airports find it appropriate to tell us to “go home” when we come back from visits to India. We can’t go on trips abroad. We pay more taxes than anyone, but receive none of the federal benefits that citizens do. Our lives hinge on the whims of an arbitrary system. Visas, school applications, even mundane undertakings such as trips to the DMV, serve to reinforce our otherness and the fragility of our residence in the U.S. The normal Green Card queue is over thrice as long for Asians as it is for Europeans, and our position in the queue can change depending on, I think, what a USCIS officer had for breakfast that morning.

One day, we were so close to receiving our Green Cards that we all finally breathed a sigh of relief and excitement; people who had filed their applications in our year were receiving their papers, our turn was coming up, and finally everything seemed like it was going to work out. The next day, the queue went back to 2004, meaning that it serviced people who were still waiting for their documents after filing their applications in 2004. And we were left waiting, once again. My father then applied for the EB-1 Green Card with his colleague, a doctor who had equivalent or, dependent on perspective, less qualifications than he did. My father’s application was denied, whereas his colleague’s was approved. Two men sitting in the USCIS office deemed one applicant had “extraordinary ability,” the other did not, and two lives were changed forever.

“The U.S. immigration system is broken.” This is a phrase that has been bandied about to the point that it is rendered meaningless. Yes, it’s broken. I heard this on TV, I read it in newspapers — I even received a letter from the White House clarifying that it is, indeed, broken — in response to my letter telling them it is broken. But people don’t know the extent to which it is actively damaging Asian immigrants’ lives, and the extent of the government’s apathy in changing a clearly harmful system.

Undocumented immigrants receive a lot of attention. Us, however? My friends assume I’m undocumented when I tell them I’m not a permanent resident — after all, they’ve known me since the third grade. The voting public should be further edified on this subject; voters should be aware of what’s at stake for Asian immigrants, how we’ve been discriminated against on a national scale, and how we can work towards progress. Because we can’t vote. We’re not citizens, remember? We can’t even stand up for ourselves. We can only hope that others do so for us.