We Must Act to Protect Documented Dreamers | Opinion

Shristi Sharma is an exceptional young woman. She grew up in Fairfield, Iowa and is currently excelling as a Robertson Scholar simultaneously studying at Duke University and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. She dreams of giving back to the community that raised her.

Unfortunately, Shristi may never get that chance; there's a dark cloud hanging over her otherwise bright future.

Despite coming to the United States legally at the age of five, Shristi is currently facing the prospect of deportation. Her family won't be eligible for permanent residency until approximately 2099 because of the enormous green card backlog. And while her parents can remain in the United States on their work visas, Shristi's H-4 dependent visa will expire when she turns 21, leaving her without legal status.

In two years, unless Congress or the Biden administration act, Shristi will become yet another victim of the byzantine rules of the American immigration system.

In America today, more than 200,000 young adults like Shristi live on the brink of deportation. Known as Documented Dreamers, they grow up in American communities, attend American schools, and graduate from American institutions of higher education. Yet despite these deep ties, when they reach 21, they age out of their dependent visas and face an unimaginable choice: to stay in the United States without legal status or to leave families, friends, and jobs to return to countries they barely remember.

DACA
A woman holds a banner during a protest supporting DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, at Foley Square in New York, on August 17, 2021. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

Crucially, these young people are not eligible for protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program devised by the Obama administration to shield other young immigrants from deportation. In a cruel twist, DACA rules specifically exclude individuals like Shristi who entered the United States through legal channels.

America's ability to attract the best and brightest foreign workers is critical to maintaining our position as a global superpower. We employ engineers, doctors, researchers, and professionals in nearly every field who come to the United States on visas for high-skilled workers, executives, and small business owners—including H-1B, L-1, and E-2 visas.

While H-1B and L-1 visa holders can apply for green cards, the current visa backlog is so long that many families must wait decades for green cards to become available, leaving their children without recourse when they turn 21. E-2 visa holders and their dependents, meanwhile, have no path to permanent residency.

It is both a moral failing and an act of economic self-sabotage that we have purposefully elected not to protect the children of these workers as they launch their own careers. We invest our tax dollars in their education and then deny these future leaders the chance to put that knowledge to work here in America.

Every day, brilliant students who could be the next Sergey Brin (born in Russia), the next Madeleine Albright (born in Czechoslovakia), or the next Vivek Murthy (born in the United Kingdom to parents from India) find themselves preparing for deportation proceedings instead of job interviews.

Fortunately, there are straightforward solutions to this problem. As the Department of Homeland Security prepares to release a new rule on DACA, it could simply remove the current requirement that applicants must have been without legal status on the date of the program's enactment. This fix, supported by 50 members of the House and Senate, would protect thousands of young adults from aging out of the system.

There is also bipartisan, bicameral support in Congress for enacting a permanent, legislative remedy. Last year, I joined with Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Young Kim, as well as Senators Alex Padilla and Rand Paul, to introduce the America's CHILDREN Act.

Our bill would provide Documented Dreamers with a pathway to citizenship and prevent them from aging out of the immigration system while they wait for green cards to become available. My partners in this effort hold divergent views on a range of issues and represent very different parts of the country, but we are united in the belief that these young people deserve a secure future here in America.

When I meet with Documented Dreamers, they are anguished and frustrated but also surprisingly hopeful—hopeful that Members of Congress from both parties can still come together in good faith to solve problems, and hopeful that young people, armed only with the power of their arguments and the force of their dreams, can still make a difference.

Despite what their papers say, there's nothing more American than believing in this country even when its government is treating you unfairly. Let's give Documented Dreamers the chance to stay in the place they love and call home.

Deborah Ross is a North Carolina Congresswoman.

The views in this article are the writer's own.