My name is Sri Ponnada and I’m a software engineer at Microsoft. At Microsoft I work on products that empower people around the world to maximize how they use technology and to accomplish more each day.
Today I am going to tell you a story about how someone with proper documentation has to leave the country they were brought to as a child – the country where they grew up, where they went to public schools, where they graduated from a public state university, and where they led multiple volunteer projects to promote STEM education and projects to help their communities and cities – because of the green card backlog.
I am that someone, and in 6 months, I am going to be forced out of my home – the United States – because I aged out of a broken immigration while my mom has been waiting almost a decade in the employment based green card system to actually receive the green card she was promised for her service as a physician in an underserved area in Iowa.
I want to tell you a little bit about my journey in the United States.
I moved to USA from Jamaica when I was 14, with my brother Sam, who was 10 at the time, because my mom started her Internal Medicine residency in New York. She was doing Cardiology research at Mayo Clinic in 2008, and fell in love with the Midwest. She told us that when she finished her residency, we will absolutely be moving to the Midwest!
So, after I finished high school, my mom got a job as a physician in a small town in Iowa that desperately needed doctors. My family realized how important that was and believe everyone – no matter where they lived should have easy access to health care – so we moved to Iowa together and I enrolled at the University of Iowa, despite being accepted into other universities.
I was super excited and immediately got involved with my new community. I was writing articles for my college paper – the Daily Iowan, and I’d spend my weekends tutoring students in Computer Science and volunteering at the public library to teach kids how to code for free. I was also a volunteer at the Women’s Resource and Action Center; I helped revamp and served as President of our Women in Informatics and Computer Science club and advocated with many companies that previously didn’t recruit in Iowa to start considering Iowa students for jobs in the tech industry; I also served as News Director at University of Iowa’s campus radio station KRUI 89.7 FM, where I created tons of programming to bring art, culture, and awareness to our community. And given all my involvements, I was even elected by my student body to represent them in our student government as a student Senator.
But while I was doing all this stuff, I was still struggling with major anxiety and depression because I was scared about whether or not me and my family would get our green cards.
My mom’s work as a doctor in an underserved community in Iowa guaranteed her a National Interest Waiver in the green card process, but the fact that she was born in India meant she still had to wait in the backlog for decades. Normally USCIS sees National Interest Waiver cases like hers in 6 months to a year, so we thought we’d be okay but because of the decades long wait times, we found out that once I turned 21, I could no longer stay here as her dependent.
My mom is still waiting for her green card today, and since I’m now an adult, I won’t be able to get my green card when the rest of my family does. Sam, my brother, is a junior at University of Iowa right now doing Math and Physics, but he’s going to lose his status in a couple of years, unless Congress does something.
This backlog has affected me since high school. If my mother had been able to get her green card, I could’ve been paid for the work I did as a Teaching Assistant at University of Iowa (which I had to battle my university to let me do it for free). I could’ve joined the Army and had the honor of serving my country, but instead, I was turned away when I tried to enlist just because I didn’t have a green card.
So, when I was 20 years old, I graduated early with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Computer Science (with numerous awards for my academic excellence and community service) and landed my job as a Software Engineer at Microsoft. Even though my day job is “software engineer” I am extremely involved in the community with various nonprofits that promote STEM education for kids – specifically for young girls. I am working on open source projects that I’m trying to partner with City of Seattle on and have been trying to get on a project with Accelerator YMCA to revamp their social services site to make it easier for people to access information about things like veteran services, programs for kids at risk of going to juvenile detention. I have also helped to start a local chapter of the global non-profit Technovation Challenge in Washington which is all about getting girls into STEM fields and I work with senior leadership at Microsoft to improve our recruiting practices and to be more inclusive.
Everything I’ve learned, I learned in America. My family is here, my friends are here, my life is here. I think of myself as an American and contribute not only to my communities but also to the greater American economy, and I hope you see me as an American, too.
I have had great opportunities in this country so far, but I still face the same anxiety I’ve had since childhood about my visa status. Even though I have lived here practically my whole life and work at Microsoft, I had to apply for a H1B visa – which is a LOTTERY – just to be able to stay in the country because there is no way for kids like me to stay here with our parents who become lawful permanent residents through the green card process. I haven’t been selected for a H1B in the lottery – so when my STEM OPT expires next February, I’ll have to leave my family, my friends, and my home in the United States – the only country I’ve known since I became a teenager. Where should I go? Jamaica – where I came from? Or to India where I was born but haven’t lived in since I was 3 years old?
Just imagine the situation I’m in. I came here with proper documentation on a dependent children’s visa. Due to the huge green card backlog for individuals from India, I lost my dependent visa status at the age of 21 as I was no longer a minor. I converted to a F-1 visa just so I could finish my college education and graduate, and got a job at one of the world’s best companies – Microsoft. Yet, I still have to self-deport when my student visa expires because I wasn’t lucky enough to get a visa to stay in the country even though Microsoft hired me for a permanent job, not a temporary contract.
Congress needs to pass legislation fast. Nothing exists to protect the status of kids like me and my brother, who were legally brought here by our parents.
That makes no sense to me. And I hope it doesn’t make sense to you either.
Please reform the employment based green card category. And more importantly, please think about kids of high skilled immigrants who are aging out due to a decades-old law which never predicted this critical scenario of kids aging out of the system. Please help us. We need your support.
This article was first published on Facebook.