By Shristi Sharma, Des Moines Register
The government estimates that my family will finally get our green cards in 2099. My father would be 124. My mother would be 118. I’d be 96.
Shristi Sharma grew up in Fairfield and attends college in North Carolina.
I love America — but last year, I almost moved to Canada.
I was a senior at Maharishi High School in Fairfield when I got two amazing offers: a full-ride scholarship to the University of Toronto, and a full-ride scholarship to study simultaneously at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
It wasn’t an easy decision for me. I’m what’s known as a “documented Dreamer”: I grew up sledding on snowy Iowa hills, celebrating the 4th of July, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, but I was actually born in India. My parents brought me here when I was 5 years old — and while we’ve always had lawful visas and played by the rules, when I turn 21 I may have to “self-deport” and return to a country I can barely remember.
That’s because for the past 13 years, my parents have been stuck on temporary work visas. It’s supposed to be a stepping stone to permanent residency. And my parents applied for green cards in 2014, as soon as they were allowed to do so. They met all the requirements. But green cards are issued on a quota system, and for people from India, the waiting list for residency is almost a century long. The government estimates that my family will finally get our green cards in 2099. My father would be 124. My mother would be 118. I’d be 96. You can understand the problem.
This is terrible for my parents. They came here to give me new opportunities; they couldn’t have known it might tear our family apart. Because that’s what’s coming. When I turn 21, just two and a half years from now, I’ll no longer qualify for a visa as my parents’ dependent. If their green card doesn’t come through by then, I’ll be forced to leave the country — even if I haven’t finished my studies.
According to the American Immigration Council, there are over 250,000 young “documented Dreamers” in my exact situation. By definition, we’re the children of skilled professionals who’ve worked hard and followed immigration rules to the letter. But under the current system, we’re stranded, with no way to plan for the future. That’s heartbreaking. I grew up in Iowa, and I consider it my home. I’ve done everything I could to give back to this amazing country. I learned to read by puzzling out the “Frog and Toad” books in the Fairfield Public Library. Later, I taught myself to code from an online course, then set up two Girls Who Code clubs so that dozens of my neighbors could learn to program too.
When a family friend died of Alzheimer’s, I used my coding skills to create an app that analyzes data from your FitBit to identify warning signs of dementia, giving high-risk patients extra time to seek treatment. My app was one of the winners of our state’s Science Fair, and now I’m working to turn my technology into something doctors and patients can use in the real world.
At Duke and Chapel Hill, I’m learning the skills I need to keep on helping others. But as a documented Dreamer, I’ve already missed out on important opportunities. I’ve been unable to apply for prestigious internships or research opportunities, because my visa doesn’t let me take paid employment. Worst of all, I may not even be able to graduate before my time runs out and I’m forced to leave for good.
That’s what made my decision to stay in America, rather than studying in Canada, so difficult. Canada has a simple merit-based immigration system, and with my education and skills, I’d be able to get permanent residency there within a few years. I chose to stay in America because it’s my home, plain and simple. I still believe in this amazing country’s ability to improve its immigration system, and give me a chance to build a future here.
And maybe I’ll have that chance. Last summer, my congresswoman in Iowa, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, joined with Rep. Deborah Ross, a North Carolina Democrat, and Rep. Young Kim, a California Republican, to sponsor the America’s CHILDREN Act, a bipartisan proposal creating a pathway to permanent residency and eventual citizenship for documented Dreamers. I’m grateful that Miller-Meeks is fighting to help us. I hope I’m not naïve to believe that her colleagues in Congress will get behind this bill.
I love America. I want nothing more than a chance to stay here, finish school and make a meaningful contribution. This country been my home for 14 years. Please don’t make me leave.