IOWA CITY — Sri and Sam Ponnada were not born in the United States, but they feel like Americans.
The siblings say this country is home. They’ve rooted their lives in U.S. soil. This is where they’ve received an education, served their communities and made friends.
“Even coming to America once just to visit is a dream that most people never even realize,” Sri said.
For now, the United States is more than a dream; life here is the Ponnadas’ reality. While their mother navigates the U.S. immigration system, however, their statuses remain in limbo and their time here may be cut short.
Sam, 18, a University of Iowa junior studying math, physics and astronomy had his sights set on a job with NASA.
But as a non-citizen, he is unable to see that dream come to fruition. Only on rare occasions does NASA hire noncitizens as civil-service employees.
His mother brought him and Sri — both Indian citizens — to the United States about a decade ago from Jamaica, first landing in New York before moving to Iowa a couple years later.
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She works as a physician in Waterloo and is in the country on an H1B visa, which enables employers to hire foreign workers for specialized jobs, and is on the waiting list to receive a green card — the key to living and working permanently in the country.
But she may have to wait decades to secure that status. In the meantime, Sam and Sri face potential deportation.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there were 395,025 foreign nationals waiting for permanent residence under the employment-based preference category as of May. Indians make up 306,601 of that number.
Given the high count of Indians already waiting for green cards, Indians face the longest wait time of any nationality. No more than 7 percent of green cards may be issued to any one country’s natives in a fiscal year under U.S. law.
“There’s no separate thing for kids who came here as dependents of (adults) on the work visa, even though they’re just as American as any other kid,” said Sam, who is currently in the United States on a F1 student visa.
How do you plan for the future when you’re not sure which country you’ll live in after college? “You can’t, really,” Sam said.
If his mother does not receive a green card by the time Sam turns 21, he will no longer be eligible to receive one with her.
That would put Sam in the same precarious position his sister is in now.
Sri, 22, graduated from the UI after studying computer science and English. She now lives in Seattle working as a Microsoft software engineer.
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Once Sri’s student visa expires next February, she will have to self-deport because her mother did not receive a green card while Sri was still her dependent.
Sri applied for an H1B in the same pool as foreign nationals coming to the country for the first time, but did not receive the visa. The next visa lottery is not until after her deportation date.
“Even though I’ve been living here — I went to high school here, I went to college here, I’ve lived here since I was a kid — I have to apply for that same visa so I can continue to stay here and work the job that I earned for myself,” she said.
Sam and Sri hope lawmakers pass legislation that would offer a pathway to citizenship for children like themselves — something akin to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects immigrants brought to the United States as minors from deportation.
Being deported, Sam said, isn’t “moving back — it’s moving.”
“No families should be separated,” Sam said. “There should be a working process for all immigrants who come to the country.”
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