Tag Archives: Citizenship

Massive Fee Hike Endangers Vulnerable Immigrants

Just days before a massive filing fee increase was set to go into effect for naturalization applications, and before a first-in-history fee for asylum applications was to be imposed, a federal judge granted a nationwide temporary reprieve.  See the 35-page order here.  

The Trump administration sought to increase the filing fees for naturalization by over 80% , eliminate most fee waivers for low-income immigrants, and create new financial barriers for immigrants seeking asylum protection in the U.S. The fee increases, which USCIS claims are necessary to subsidize the fiscally-challenged agency, were originally scheduled to go into effect on October 2, 2020. 

Federal Judge Rules that Fee Increase Will Endanger Vulnerable Immigrants

On September 29, 2020, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California, appointed by George W. Bush, ruled that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on some of their claims, and wrote:  

“The public interest would be served by enjoining or staying the effective date of the Final Rule because if it takes effect, it will prevent vulnerable and low-income applicants from applying for immigrant benefits, will block access to humanitarian protections, and will expose those populations to further danger.”

The plaintiffs, which included several non-profit organizations which serve the immigrant community, also argued that defendant Chad Wolf, Acting Secretary of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was improperly appointed, and therefore his actions, such as proposed fee increases, are unlawful.  

Plaintiffs also made the case that the USCIS fee rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs federal agencies.

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to appeal.

Immigrant Rights Groups Applaud the Ruling

One of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, issued the following statement on the court’s order:  

“USCIS’ Fee Rule is unlawful and incredibly destructive, and we applaud the court’s decision to protect millions of immigrants and their families. 

The Rule, which disproportionately harms people of color, is a blatant attempt by the Trump administration to create financial barriers for asylum seekers, families, and would-be citizens in order to prevent them from obtaining United States residence or U.S. citizenship. 

This is immoral, classist and a blatant violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The injunction will ensure that millions of low income immigrants, applicants for naturalization, asylum seekers, survivors of domestic violence and survivors of human trafficking will be able to affordably apply for the immigration benefits they are eligible for.”

What This Means for Immigrants Seeking Benefits

Until further notice, applicants will not be subjected to the fee increases as outlined in the regulation.  It is expected that USCIS will issue an update regarding the impact on the order on new editions on forms that were to be implemented on October 2, as part of the fee increase.

Monitor this issue closely and refer to the USCIS website for updates.  


Richard Herman is a lawyer without borders. A nationally renowned immigration lawyer, author and activist, he has dedicated his life to advocating for immigrants and helping change the conversation on immigration.  He is the founder of the Herman Legal Group, an immigration law firm launched in 1995 and recognized in U.S. World News & Report’s “Best Law Firms in America.”  He is the co-author of the acclaimed book, Immigrant, Inc. —Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).  Richard’s poignant commentary has been sought out by many national media outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, BusinessWeek, Forbes, FOX News (The O’Reilly Factor), National Public Radio, Inc., National Lawyers Weekly, PC World, Computerworld, CIO, TechCrunch, Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle and InformationWeek.

Image:Neelam Sundaram on Unsplash

Naturalization Fees Spike On Oct 2

If you are eligible for naturalization, or some other immigration benefits, now is the time to apply!

After concluding their biennial review of fee collections last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a significant increase in filing fees for many applicants. The USCIS fee increase, as given in the Final rule document, will take effect from Oct 2, 2020.

The average weighted fee increase is 20%.

For the first time in U.S. history, USCIS has also introduced a fee for asylum applications and an elimination of many existing fee waivers. 

On September 2, 2020, USCIS issued this policy guidance

Here are some of the important upcoming changes:

Naturalization

The N-400 naturalization application fee will increase from $640 to $1160 for online applications and $1170 for paper applications – an 83% increase!  

Not only will applicants pay higher N-400 filing fees, but they also will not have the option to apply for a fee reduction ($320), a whopping 266% increase in the filing fee, for those whose income is greater than 150% and less than 200% of the poverty level.  

USCIS has also eliminated the N-400 fee waiver for those with income greater than 200% of the poverty level.

Unfortunately, while this may not have been the intention, the effect of these fee increases is to create a wealth test to become an American citizen.

This new fee structure does not correspond to the inflation rate increase in the United States during the two years from the previous assessment. Justifying the increase, the USCIS says that the fee was held below cost in the past and the new fee will reflect the full cost of providing the service.

However, this fee increase does not consider how much of a barrier finances are to immigrants looking to naturalize. Financial and administrative barriers stand in the way of naturalization for 13% of Mexican and 19% other lawful immigrants, according to a 2015 survey, published by Pew Research. Besides the financial burden, the new fee penalizes immigrants who abide by the law and forces them to turn to predatory financing to afford the USCIS fee.

It is a fact that naturalization offers many economic and social benefits to legal immigrants. 

  • Research shows that naturalized citizens have higher employment rates and can earn up to 70% more than non-citizens 
  • Full protection of the U.S. Constitution
  • Protection from potential deportation
  • Ability to travel overseas and live outside of the U.S. without fear of abandoning the right to the green card;
  • Ability to vote and have an impact on elections
  • Ability to sponsor parents, siblings and married children for permanent residency; and
  • Ability to work in more U.S. government-related jobs that require security clearances.

Non-Immigrant Workers

In the proposal, USCIS has also proposed to split the I-129 Petition for a Nonimmigrant worker (application cost of $460) into multiple forms, with most forms having a higher fee. For instance, the I-129H2A—Named Beneficiaries application fee will be $850, an 85% increase. The change would apply to all classifications sought through the Form I-129.

Registration of Permanent Residence or Adjustment of Status

The USCIS fee structure will also change for the Form I-485 applicants. An unbundling of filing fees will mean that they will have to pay extra for work authorization (Form I-765) and their travel document (Form I-131). This new structure will result in nearly doubling the fee, which will be $1130 for I-485, $550 for I-765, and $590 for I-131. 

Drop in Immigration

These changes come at a time when there has been a significant decrease in legal immigrants admitted to the U.S. According to the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), there was a 7.3% (86,894 people) drop in immigration from FY 2016 to FY 2018, and the majority of the decrease has been in the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, including children, spouses, and parents, reported Stuart Anderson for Forbes. 

Certain countries, including Mexico and China, are over-represented in the declined applicants with a decrease of 7.3% for Mexico and 20% for China, adds Anderson. Numbers in other segments of immigration also indicate the direction taken by the Trump administration: 

The annual ceiling for refugees and asylum seekers is set by the President in consultation with Congress. The 30,000 ceiling for FY 2019 was the lowest since the creation of the resettlement program in the 80s, according to Migration Policy. There has also been a marked change in the number of people approved for asylum, with a decrease in 43% from FY 2016 to 31% in FY 2019. The ceiling is at 18,000 for FY 2020, adds the report.

The Need to Reform USCIS 

Unlike most government agencies, the USCIS relies on fees for its funds. In FY 2019, the USCIS fee carryover went into the negative for the first time since 2007, and it is expected to reach $1.5 bn this year, says Migration Policy research. The researchers add that a decreasing petition rate and greater processing times are two important factors in the turnaround: a one million drop in petitions in FY 2018 resulted in a $152 million drop in fees, and continued drop in a petition with highest fees in FY 2019 resulted in a $13 million drop. At the same time, money spent on vetting applicants and detecting benefit fraud increased significantly (an increase of $96 million for vetting and $202 million for fraud from FY2016 to FY 2020). 

The Bottom Line

These facts and figures clearly indicate a need to change the priorities of the USCIS, so that it can not only support itself but also ensure that it facilitates the people depending on it for swift processing. Unfortunately, the new changes indicate a continuation of policies to make naturalization difficult for lawful immigrants and further increasing the backlog of cases. 

This final rule will take effect from Oct. 2, 2020, and will apply to any application postmarked on or after this date. If you have a petition or application to submit, then consider submitting it before the date to avoid the new fees.


Richard Herman is a lawyer without borders. A nationally renowned immigration lawyer, author and activist, he has dedicated his life to advocating for immigrants and helping change the conversation on immigration.  He is the founder of the Herman Legal Group, an immigration law firm launched in 1995 and recognized in U.S. World News & Report’s “Best Law Firms in America.”  He is the co-author of the acclaimed book, Immigrant, Inc. —Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).  Richard’s poignant commentary has been sought out by many national media outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, BusinessWeek, Forbes, FOX News (The O’Reilly Factor), National Public Radio, Inc., National Lawyers Weekly, PC World, Computerworld, CIO, TechCrunch, Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle and InformationWeek.

 

5 years + 5 more = Marriage With America

The mantra of many Indians who left their homeland, for the longest time was – I will return to India in 5 years. The magic number 5 was almost unanimously agreed upon by many NRIs who moved to any part of the 5 of the 7 continents. Probably because only 5 were habitable, or because 5 years were enough to earn a degree, work a couple of years, and maybe even save $5K to get back home and start a new life! Whatever the reason, the promise was one of return to the motherland.

Back in the ’80s, college and job applications were non-existent. Applications had to be requested via regular postal mail. They had to be filled out by hand and mailed back. It was a time consuming and tedious process. 

The arrival of the acceptance letter was followed by a series of phone calls to family and friends, distribution of sweets, and a party where sometimes entire neighborhoods were invited. After the initial ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs, came a torrent of tears. 

As the departure day came close, the word ‘packing’ would send mothers in tears. Packing two suitcases with the maximum weight allowed was the most challenging and dreaded experience. Mothers wanted to pack not only clothes but food as well. In went processed condiments, homemade pickles, savories, and sweets. Fathers made sure documents, finances, and papers were in order. Suitcases were weighed, unpacked much to the dismay of mothers, repacked, and reweighed. After heated arguments, sobbing, complaining, cajoling, and hugging and making up, the final packing was done. And, after receiving a barrage of phone calls and reading numerous telegrams wishing ‘Bon Voyage’, ‘Best Wishes’, and ‘Happy Landings’, fatigue took over but sleep eluded, for it was the last day spent together before the great departure. 

Anita Mohan captures the University of Colorado in the 80s

 Upon landing on the new soil and clearing US Customs without any hassles, the migratory students adjusted to their new surroundings by flocking together. They forged bonds with other Indian students. From sharing dorm rooms, apartments, and even cars, to hunting for Indian grocery stores, Indian restaurants, places of worship, and procuring membership for Costco (earlier known as Price Club) they began their life here. All this coupled with coping with the new routine and rigor of academics, was the challenge of finding assistantships, on-campus jobs or other odd jobs to sustain a living. 

Calls to India in the late 1980s were $3.95 for the first minute and $1.95 for every minute thereon. Parents and students agreed that outgoing phone calls would be made only once a month and talk-time would strictly be limited to no more than 3 minutes max. Almost every phone call would begin and end with tears and sniffing on both sides. 

Letters to and from home would take three to four weeks to be delivered! (These were the days before the birth of the World Wide Web, Social Media, and Mobile phones) Aerograms or Airmails were used. USPS and Indian Postal Service were lifelines that held families together. Though the news and events (of birthdays, weddings, festivals, births, and deaths) relayed in the letter were long over, reading about them renewed all the excitement and also made one emotional. 

Mothers checked in to see how their fledglings were doing, but it was actually a double-edged sword to drive one on a guilt trip for making the decision to study/work abroad, though it was a point of pride for them as well. It was always – “a cousin, a neighbor, or a friend’s son or daughter has gone to study in the US and is doing so well, so must you.” 

The new students were in awe of the life here. Things that were unheard, unseen, and regarded as a luxury back home were basic needs here. Hot and cold running water 24/7, supermarkets carrying frozen breakfast and cut vegetables, ready to eat meals, shopping malls, washer/dryer, dishwashers, etc. was all thought to make life easy. 

After the initial awe, shock set in, Chores! They were required to be done! No mother to provide fresh hot meals, no vendor bringing the vegetable cart to your door, and no domestic helper to help you clean and do the dishes. Every single chore had to be done by the student! It was time for the juggling act. 

A brief period of stress followed graduation, the phase of changing the practice, a temporary F1 student visa into an applicable, permanent H1 work visa. Once that was settled, parents and students heaved a big sigh of relief. Parents proudly showed off photos of their sons and daughters, talked about their first car, H1 visa approval, and how they managed to find their first job. 

It was now time to get married and settle into family life. If one was in love, it was time to take a favorite cousin, uncle, or aunt into confidence and have them convince the parents. Perhaps the parents were open and there were no issues, otherwise, after a lot of reluctance and melodrama, permission for marriage was given. If there was to be an arranged marriage, it required word to be spread about prospective brides and grooms, alliances would start to pour, photos exchanged, and matches made. The groom would then proudly bring his bride to this country and after the initial struggles, begin to settle down. 

Once children were born, a new phase would begin. The free K-12 public school education, clean environment, excellent and prestigious universities for higher education, and so on acted as incentives to extend the 5-year dream. But soon the 5-year dream would be shelved, and a new dream, the vicious cycle of voluntary entrenchment would begin – obtaining a Green Card, buying a home, and becoming a citizen of the USA.

Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelance writer from Fairfax, Virginia. 

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Why EB-5 is the Best Solution for Your H-1B Woes

In the United States, workers from India comprise the largest number of H-1B professionals.

But, in the wake of US policy changes on immigration, Indians have been hit the hardest, putting their eligibility and professional dreams at severe risk.

In a recent report from the National Foundation for American Policy it was shown that in 2017 72% of the H-1B petitions denied were for professionals from India. What’s larger, however, is the emotional hardships families have had to bear from these denials. Ashish Kumar, a software engineer from Indore, has a particularly apt story. In 2014, Ashish and his family moved to upstate New York from India for work. Four years later, his family had completely acclimatized to America, with hopes of permanent residency. His son, who upon arrival, barely spoke English, now spoke indistinguishably from other American children. Even more, his wife, six months pregnant, had the hope of raising another child in America. In early September, Ashish and his family received the shocking news that their H-1B had not been renewed. They were given two weeks to pack all their belongings and relocate back to India.

Ashish’s plight is shared with many other families. These families become completely immersed in American culture. Some even have American born children. For them, America is home.  

While some professionals may be eligible for employment based green cards (EB-2 and EB-3), these visas can be restrictive. Wait times are severely backlogged from 10 to 15 years. To make matters worse, employer sponsorship does not assure green card approval and prevents the candidate from moving cities.

With such massive uncertainty, is there a better solution?

The EB-5 Investor Visa is one such opportunity, giving Indian citizens the chance to earn permanent residency through capital investment. Unlike EB-2 and EB-3, there is no severe backlog. Even more, EB-5 does not:

  • Require employer sponsorship
  • Depend on a lottery system
  • Have long wait times for family sponsorship

Instead, it gives Indian citizens a chance to build a future by working and living anywhere in the US, with the added opportunity to earn US citizenship.

On, November 9th at 2PM EST US Freedom Capital will be hosting a webinar to discuss the ins and outs of the EB-5 Investor Visa. CIO, David Gunderson, will discuss the process, timelines, and successes of our own H-1B clients who have received their green cards in as little as 14 months. In addition, we will have a Q&A session after the webinar to discuss any specific questions/comments from the audience.

To register please click here https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/8199200439262243339

 

About US Freedom Capital

US Freedom Capital is a global investment firm committed to the long-term growth and security of its investors’ assets. Our investment projects are thoughtfully designed for the EB-5 Program and to create diversified, high-yield returns.
The US Freedom Capital team combines decades of experience in commercial US real estate, immigration, and investment management. Our industry experts have over $3 billion in commercial real estate experience, and include the three former highest-ranking officials at US Immigration (USCIS).

Withdraw Citizenship Question from 2020 Census

The U.S. Census Bureau is seeking public comments on its 2020 Census plan, which includes a citizenship question on the census form all households must answer.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross directed the bureau to add the untested question in March, after misleading stakeholders and Congress about the Justice Department’s need for citizenship data from every person.

In our view (insert name of news outlet), collecting citizenship status data from every resident for the first time in 70 years will jeopardize any serious effort to achieve a complete count.   We join dozens of ethnic media outlets across the country in demanding that the Department of Commerce withdraw the question. We will also urge our audiences to use the public comments period to explain why the decision to add the question is so misguided.

Ethnic news media are acutely aware of the high stakes our audiences have in a successful census. The 2020 Census ranks as one of the top civil rights issues of our time, underpinning how federal dollars are allocated to our communities and who represents us at almost every level of government. It tells us who we are and who we are becoming as a society.  The 2020 Census is the one and only act of civic engagement in which literally every person counts – equally.

But all that hinges on people’s willingness to trust the government to rigorously adhere to the strict legal protections for census confidentiality and to ensure an equitable distribution of benefits to historically underserved communities of color. As media leaders serving  many of the hardest to reach populations in the U.S., we know that public trust in government has eroded sharply, replaced by pervasive fear in the face of anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric.

We have a long history of informing, engaging and advocating on behalf of our communities. But when people are paralyzed by fear or alienated by anger and distrust, not even trusted intermediaries will be able to convince them to participate in the 2020 Census.  In this climate, adding the citizenship question sends exactly the wrong message and puts the 2020 Census at risk of an historic undercount.

Here is a sampling of comments from ethnic media leaders:

“It’s a cynical ploy to diminish the influence of people of color.” -Yawu Miller, Editor, South Bay Banner (African American)

“Recent immigration policies have created a climate where immigrants, both legal as well as those who are undocumented, live in fear. Self-identifying as non-citizens in today’s times is a risky proposition and those who are not citizens will not participate. It’s as simple as that.”  -Darek Barcikowski, White Eagle News (Polish American)

“Definitely adding the citizenship question will hurt participation. Even legal immigrants now have fear.  Those who are not citizens will evade the questionnaire.” -Myong Sool Chang, Editor, Korean Boston (Korean American)

“People in the Turkish community don’t want to share their status with anyone outside their own relatives. The question feels threatening to all immigrants, regardless of their status.” -Orhan Akkurt, Publisher, Zamen Anerika  (Turkish American)

“The citizenship question will suppress the count, which defeats the very purpose of the Census.” -Vandana Kumar, India Currents

The biggest undercount will be of 0 to 5 year olds, which means we won’t be able to distinguish the identities of the next generation.”  “The government should reconsider adding the question on citizenship which is rather personal and does nothing in terms of generating the head count except create fear in the minds of an already scared immigrant community.  -Fernando Andres Torres, freelance reporter and editor

 

 

Undocumented, Unapologetic, Unafraid

I walked into the San Francisco Immigration Court for my initial deportation hearing right before Christmas 2011. The courtroom was packed with immigrants mostly from India and Mexico, awaiting their deportation to countries they had left behind years ago. One by one, they stepped up; someone entered a plea for asylum, someone asked for more time, and many others accepted their fate: imminent separation from their family members. When they came to my name on the docket, I took a seat next to my attorney, fully prepared to hear and battle the charges against me.

WESTWOOD, CA - MAY 18, 2010: Students and supporters including Andrea Ortega, right, Prerna Lal, center, and Mayra (would not give her last name), left, hold signs during a press conference calling for passage of the DREAM Act, on a corner outside of the Westwood Federal Building. The DREAM Act would assist illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, a path to citizenship and make it easier for them to receive college degrees. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)
WESTWOOD, CA – MAY 18, 2010: Students and supporters including Andrea Ortega, right, Prerna Lal, center, and Mayra (would not give her last name), left, hold signs during a press conference calling for passage of the DREAM Act, on a corner outside of the Westwood Federal Building. The DREAM Act would assist illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 years old, a path to citizenship and make it easier for them to receive college degrees. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

To the average desi, illegal immigration is a “Hispanic” problem. Indeed, from the rhetoric that swirls around this issue, one gets the sense that every undocumented immigrant has skulked across the Mexican border at night, desperate to milk the American welfare state and steal good old American jobs (an argument whose efficacy seems to be uncorrelated with its inconsistency!) But the undocumented have many stories to tell—of escaping persecution in their homeland, of arriving as employees and staying on past their visa expiry dates because of their ties to this country, of unscrupulous employers and terrible immigration attorneys mishandling their cases. Or, as in my case, arriving as a child and “aging out” before I could petition to change my status. And yes, Indians cross the border from Mexico too. After Latin Americans, Indians are the largest group of immigrants caught at the Southwest border. And we’ve been doing this since the late 1800s—entering the United States without inspection through Mexico and Canada.

The Notice to Appear (NTA) document read, “She entered the country around November 13, 1999 and was authorized to stay till November 10, 1999.”

The Honorable judge smiled. “Well, obviously that is wrong. Would you like to suggest a friendly amendment?”

The government lawyer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not clear. It says in my files that she entered at or around May 2000. Is that not true?”

The attorney assigned to represent me looked sideways at me with her eyebrow raised. I returned the raised eyebrow and shook my head.

“That’s not true,” she countered.

“In that case, I don’t know what the facts are,” the government attorney declared in apparent frustration.

I don’t blame him. A lot has happened in the past 13 years that his job as a prosecutor would never allow him to consider beyond arrival and departure dates.

From what I can recall, I was around 14 when my father decided to pack our belongings and move us to the San Francisco Bay Area all the way from the islands of Fiji. He said he was running away from years of ethnic violence against Indians in Fiji. The rest of us did not have his sense of urgency but he wanted out and it didn’t matter if anyone else understood. I’ve often wondered about his reasons but no longer think the question holds any relevance.

The 2010 March For America. Photo by Judy G. Rolfe
The 2010 March For America. Photo by Judy G. Rolfe

 

Cold dreary weather gave me a warm welcome to the United States. We came to live with one of my uncles in Hayward, CA. I was enrolled in a public high school and expected to pick up right where I had left off, as if nothing had changed. My grandmother—a U.S. citizen—filed papers for us and I was told not to worry about immigration matters. My older sister had been studying here on an F-1 student visa and there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t do the same upon graduation from high school, and then eventually adjust my status to a green-card holder.

In hindsight, South Asians would ask me why I wasn’t smart enough to just stay on a student visa. It’s actually illegal to attend a public high school in the United States on an F-1 visa without compensating the school, and I couldn’t afford that. Besides, I was a dependent on my father’s visa and attended high school legally. I ended up graduating near the top of my class with admission to attend several reputable schools but discovered that I was unable to accept any of the offers because the newly formed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denied my application for a student visa.

Apparently, the visa petition filed by my grandmother when I was brought here was evidence of immigrant intent. In order to be an F-1 international student, I had to prove ties to my former country. USCIS emphatically declared in their denial letter that I was unable to prove any ties to Fiji and that the visa petition filed for my parents by my grandmother meant that I intended to live here. The irony in all of this is that had they allowed me to study here in legal status, I would have probably left the country after college. However, because I started to accrue “unlawful presence” due to the visa rejection, leaving the country triggered a senseless 10-year ban. I became someone who could neither live here nor leave here. I became undocumented.

That is how a lot of South Asian immigrants live in America. We make up a significant  number of the undocumented immigrant population in the United States but we are also conditioned to stay silent and remain fearful about our status. For a long time, I lived in fear of my life. Afraid to go to hospital when I broke my hand, afraid to talk about the abuse I underwent at home, afraid to ask for help if I was involved in an accident, afraid to tell teachers and friends in college that I was undocumented and needed financial support, afraid to apply for jobs or seek scholarships out of fear that someone would find out and report me to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

My mother constantly told me not to worry about my immigration status. According to her, all I had to do was work hard and go to school, and things would eventually sort themselves out. With the little money she had saved up from cleaning hotel rooms and working a fast-food job, she bought a small cleaning business. She enrolled me in a local community college. The college was more than happy to take me even without the proper immigration paperwork.

I would go to school in the day and work for the cleaning business till the crack of dawn. I didn’t have work authorization. I was paying out of state tuition for school with no access to student loans. I could not drive so I would bike and take public transportation up to six hours daily to get to college. I had no identification besides a passport with a photo that no longer resembled me, so I could not travel. For a long time, I dealt with these barriers by compartmentalizing them and throwing myself into my studies.

I worked hard and somehow graduated from college and graduate school before I was 22.

By then, I had spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder, waiting for the axe to come down on the life we were leading in this country. Fortunately, my parents finally became eligible for a green card and we went to a lawyer’s office to file for adjustment of status.

Protests in front of the White House
Protests in front of the White House

 

Then a new wrinkle appeared.

“What do you mean, she aged out?” my mom asked the lawyer, perplexed.

“She is too old now to qualify for a green card with you. You would need to file for her again separately, after getting your green card. She will have to wait in line again. Alternatively, there’s always the DREAM Act (a piece of proposed legislation that would give certain undocumented youth brought to the United States before the age of 16 a pathway to legal residency).”

“How many more years does she have to wait? She has already waited 8 years for her green card.”

“7-8 more years. There is no way to tell. Maybe she should consider getting married.”

“I keep telling her to find a boy,” my mother said, agreeing with the lawyer.

“She has plenty of time. Just make sure he is a U.S. citizen.”

It hurt. Up to that point in time, I had kept quiet about the fact that I was gay. I’m sure my parents knew but they refused to acknowledge it. Depressed, lonely, and frustrated with living multiple lies, I tried to kill myself on several occasions. When my mother and sister started to look for prospective husbands for me, I decided that the only way to put an end to it was to be as out as possible. The best way to protect myself was to break through the barrier of invisibility. And that was the first step to breaking my chains.

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is a proposal that was first introduced in the U.S. Senate on August 1, 2001. This bill would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented youth of good moral character who graduated from U.S. high schools or gain a GED, arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill’s enactment. If they were to complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning, they would obtain temporary residency for a six year period.

The legislation went nowhere for several years and was later tied to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 1348) as low-hanging fruit. With the failure of “comprehensive reform” legislation, Senator Dick Durbin (Ill.), the chief proponent of the DREAM Act in the Senate, made its passage a priority for his office.

In October 2007, after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act once yet again, I met other undocumented youth like me on an online portal, who were willing to do more than just sit around in fear and live in the shadows. There was Mohammad Abdollahi, brought here from Iran at the age of three, whose attorney had filed the wrong fee for his dad’s work visa and then failed to appeal the adverse decision, which made the entire family undocumented; Kemi Bello, brought here at the age of six from Nigeria by her mom because her severely handicapped sister could only get medical treatment in this country. I found and created family in these students. Little did I know that the family I was created through email, GChat, Facebook, and phone conversations would evolve into an entire network of fierce and envied immigrant rights activists in just a few short months.

With the little cash I had from doing odd jobs, I bought a web domain—DreamActivist.org—and started working on building a website to act as both a resource and action center for undocumented youth. The Internet allows users to be anonymous, so it was a safe way to gather and share our stories while protecting our identities, meet other undocumented youth in the same state and forge friendships as well as alliances. I traveled to dozens of states, teaching undocumented youth across the country how to use the web and social media to share their stories. Immigrant rights organizations started noticing our growing network and reached out to us to speak at events and conferences across the country. After all, we were building the very base that they purport to fight for and support with their money. Currently, we have more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, 80,000 on Facebook, and over 100,000 members on the mailing list and growing—a network that even multi-million dollar immigration reform campaigns have been unable to match.

With the support of an entire community behind me, I was no longer afraid to take on the system. So when the largest newspaper in the country, USA Today, decided to brand us as “illegal students,” I wasn’t going to allow them to get away with it. The label “illegal” has a way of dehumanizing the person involved, and from there it is a quick step to creating an unknown and amorphous bogey man who is responsible for all the ills befalling citizens.
I directed thousands of emails and calls to the newspaper asking them to change their discourse. A retraction was printed within days and the reporter quit her job a little later.

Inspired by the small campaign, Colorlines, a news site focusing on issues of racial justice, launched their “Drop the I-word” campaign, asking media professionals to stop using the word.

Through my work, I found other undocumented South Asian students in various parts of the country. One such student was Taha, who was brought here at the age of two and lived in New Jersey for 16 years. He was being deported back to Bangladesh in less than a week. But due to the shame and stigma of being undocumented, his family wanted no media exposure. We had to launch a behind-the-scenes campaign, urging his Senators to stop his impending deportation and directing a few thousand faxes to the Department of Homeland Security.

Senator Robert Menendez wrote to the Department of Homeland Security on Taha’s behalf, requesting that they defer action on Taha’s deportation because “our nation benefits more by his presence than by his absence.” Indeed, one recent UCLA study estimates that between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period by DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining resident status through the legislation.

A week later, at a June 2009 United We Dream governance convening, I learned that Taha and his family had been granted deferred action—a stay of removal that authorizes a person to live and work in the United States.
That amazing realization that we could now stop any deportation holds mostly true to this day.

Since then, immigrant rights organizers and attorneys across the country have banded together to halt deportations in similar cases. Every week, friends, families and organizers gather to fax, email, call, and arrange meetings with officials in the Obama Administration.

Some of this momentum has led to the formation of new organizations with numerous local alliances, such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) in Chicago. Undocumented students have started to realize that their growing numbers and visibility actually help their cause. Undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic is the new mantra of the movement.

As part of this movement we attend City Council hearings, organize educational workshops for community members, hold rallies, and lobby legislators to support the DREAM Act.

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The more courageous ones partake in civil disobedience actions—from hunger strikes to shutting down streets to occupying Congressional offices to placing themselves in detention to gather evidence of ICE abuses against detainees.

Out in the open, nothing seems to be impossible. We have stopped hundreds of deportations. We have found ways to get undocumented youth employed by creating limited liability companies. We have created Undocuhealth.org to battle the shame, stigma, and stress of being an undocumented youth. And I have embarked in my own form of civil disobedience—placing myself in deportation proceedings while attending law school in the nation’s capital.

Given the current immigration court backlogs in San Francisco and the pending litigation with regards to my case, I probably won’t be scheduled for an individual deportation hearing till 2015. By that time, I should actually be able to get a green card through my mother. Till then, I am “an alien authorized to work” in the United States.

I did pay a heavy price. My mother was hospitalized upon hearing about my impending deportation and she is now suffering from depression. My father does not speak to me because I am openly gay. As a poster child for the DREAM Act, I have a tougher time gaining and keeping employment because people assume that my undocumented status means that I don’t have work authorization or clearance, which is a classic case of job discrimination.

I’m not writing this to garner widespread sympathy or empathy regarding my deportation. I am writing this story to ask everyone to live their lives as honestly and openly as possible because living in the shadows and hiding our problems doesn’t do anything for us as a community. My experience has clearly shown me that finding people in the same situation as me and working together to fight the system has been tremendously successful.

Some would deride my personal journey and battle as a sense of entitlement. Some would extoll the courage and conviction I have displayed in the face of adversity. I’d peg it down spending half my life figuring out how to keep my family together by making a broken immigration system work for us. I sometimes question whether the struggle has been worth it but my dream is to sit on the beaches of Fiji sipping coconut water with a green-card in my wallet.

Prerna Lal is a law student at The George Washington University Law School and the co-founder of DreamActivist.org. She can be reached at Prerna@dreamactivist.org