The children of H-1B visa holders are growing up — and still waiting for green cards

Published: 02/14/2018


In 2008, the allure of coming to the United States seemed like a two-way street for Chinmoyee Datta. The US would get a qualified teacher in a district that couldn’t find enough instructors and Datta would get to experience an entirely new country.

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Kolkata-born Datta had been teaching at a Catholic school in a large and growing education hub in central India, the city of Jabalpur, for 11 years. Her husband was a principal at a government school. Like her, he had job stability and credibility in his profession. Their son would soon be in fourth grade.

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After attending a seminar in Delhi about the cultural exchange program and discussing it further with her family, Datta decided to apply. She didn’t think too deeply about employment visas or green cards, or what it would mean for her as an Indian citizen to make a new life in America. She had no idea she would become one of tens of thousands of Indian nationals in the US on H-1B visas waiting for legal permanent residency, or that her son would face his own decisions about what path he would take to stay in the country that would become his home.

The idea of seeing a new part of the world seduced her. It’s only a few years, she thought. Her brother-in-law in Texas, who first brought up the idea of teaching abroad, helped her file paperwork with a private recruitment company and took care of all the fees. A superintendent at an interested school district in Mississippi soon interviewed her on the phone. His questions rolled out in southern drawl, a kind of English Datta had never heard before: What are your strengths and weaknesses? How will you approach cultural differences? Given their backgrounds, do you believe the kids can learn?

She won over the superintendent. He offered her a position teaching middle school math at Durant Public School District, in Mississippi. Datta had never heard of the place, but if she needed to, she could call on her brother-in-law for help. She accepted the position. She applied for a J-1 visa for long-term cultural exchange visits, submitted the necessary fees and prepped for her pending arrival to Jackson, Mississippi, about 65 miles away from where she would live.

Her husband and son decided to follow, a year later. Datta’s father, curious about his daughter’s future whereabouts, searched all over Kolkata for a map of Mississippi. He eventually found one and saw, with satisfaction, that Durant appeared to be a big city.

It turned out the map was misleading.

Durant Public School is the only school in Durant Public School District, which serves most of the town of Durant and its dwindling population of just under 3,000. The wide, white building sits next door to the school’s central office, which the superintendent, with only a trace of tease, says is the town’s main point of interest. Past the brown front lawn and across the street, a trailer advertises itself as the Parent Resource Center. Recent rains have left stains on the front, but the trailer looks relatively new and well-kept compared to the homes on the surrounding streets. Overgrown weeds sprout from the front lawns of more than a few of the neighborhood houses.

Students trickle into the school building on a Monday morning in January. They trudge down the dim hall, past a handful of printouts affixed to the wall congratulating seniors for admissions to Jackson State University, Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi. The students wear khaki pants, boots and several layers to shield themselves from the winter chill, — items mostly purchased from outside of town given the only store nearby is a Family Dollar. Only a few students carry backpacks.

Inside a door decorated with snowflakes, snowman cutouts and a sky-blue border dotted with more smiling snowman heads, Datta’s classroom is bright and welcoming. Now 48, she has been a teacher at Durant for nearly 10 years. Her wavy, shoulder-length black hair stays put whenever she swivels her head to address one of her students.

She admonishes a student taller than her when he doesn’t show his work on the board while simplifying addition and subtraction functions. The other students duck their heads low, problem-solving and checking their math with calculators they picked up from a caddy hanging on the front wall. Ms. Datta, as she is known at school, walks the aisles of paired desks and advises the students, 12 of them in that morning’s class. “You put the negative sign here, the minus.”

A scuffle breaks out near a window. “M’Datta, you got a spider up in here!” It’s taken refuge on the windowsill and attracts an audience. Datta walks swiftly to grab some tissue and with the sweep of an arm, puts the arachnid, and the commotion, to rest.

In the back corner of the classroom, a mahogany-framed photo of her son when he was her students’ age, just 13, rests on her desk next to two big binders. They contain her lesson plans, worksheets, schedules, special activities and the teaching standards of her school.


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