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The growing backlog of green card applications is disrupting the lives of Indian nationals in NC

Shristi Sharma was 12 years old when she learned that she was not American.

Sharma, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, and recalled summers celebrating Fourth of July – her family’s favorite holiday – and enjoying fireworks and neighborhood potlucks. She loved to read The Gallagher Girls, a young adult book series about girls who are trained to become spies, and for a while, she dreamed of working as an agent for the CIA.

But during middle school, a conversation with her father forever changed how she saw herself and her future. A tech startup company had moved to the area and offered her a summer gig.

“I was at the dining table with my dad and I was just telling him about my day,” Sharma said. “And I was like, ‘Hey, by the way, I got this summer opportunity.' And he’s like, ‘Is it paid?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re going to pay me. I’m so excited.’ And that’s when he said that I couldn’t take the job. Because I was not authorized to work in the U.S. because I wasn’t a permanent resident.”

Sharma, 20, was born in India, in the city of Kolkata in the state of West Bengal. In 2008, when Sharma was five years old, she, her mother, and her younger sister followed her father to the U.S. After he received his degree, Sharma’s father found a job and an employer sponsored his H-1B visa, a temporary, three-year visa that foreign nationals receive through a lottery when they come to the U.S. to work in specialized occupations. As a dependent of a H-1B visa holder, Sharma was in the country on a H4 visa.

Then in 2014, her father’s employer submitted his application for a green card. But to this day, nine years later, Sharma’s family is still waiting for their green cards to become available.

Sharma’s family is one of many families, particularly from India and China, who have been waiting years for green cards because of a massive backlog in applications. Every year, the U.S. makes available 140,000 employment-based green cards but individuals of each country cannot receive more than 7% of them.

The Cato Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank, reported in August that the backlog of employment-based green card applications has reached a record 1.8 million, and that 1.1 million of them are from Indians.

“New applicants from India will face a lifetime wait, and more than 400,000 will die before they receive a green card,” wrote David Bier, the associate director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute.

While families wait for green cards to become available, many have had to keep renewing the H-1B visa to stay in the country legally.

“If it gets denied, you lose your job,” Sharma said, recalling the emotional toll that the renewing process has taken on her family over the years. “You have to self-deport, go back to India, leave behind the house that we've bought, the friends and family that we've made, the community that we're involved in, just kind of leave it all behind. This is a continuous fear that, like my parents, and I live in – and now my sister too – at what moment do we no longer get to stay here.”

Sharma is also one of a growing number of foreign nationals whose parents brought to the U.S. when they were young children and are now figuring out what to do when they separate from their parents’ visa at the age of 21. Sharma recently transferred to the F1 student visa, which will help her stay in the U.S. until she graduates but after that, she said she’ll have to find an American employer to sponsor her for a H-1B visa, move to another country to work, or self-deport to India.

For Indians, getting a green card can be a long, difficult journey

In recent decades, many Indians have come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees. Apex resident Mehul Chokshi was in his mid-twenties when he moved from India to the U.S. in 2005 to get a master’s degree in civil engineering at Texas A&M University.

“In the beginning of the 2000s, I saw a lot of a lot of engineers, and, you know, highly educated folks coming to us just because of the opportunities, personal standard of living and professional opportunities that were there,” Chokshi said. And that's when I saw that, you know, I could probably have a better life coming to [the] United States.

But that was before Chokshi, 42, realized what a long and difficult road lay ahead of him. He became a H-1B visa holder in 2008 and later in 2016, a previous employer sponsored his green card application.

Applying for an employment-based green card involves a few steps. The individual’s employer has to test the labor market to see if there are any U.S. workers available for their job. And if not, the employer can file paperwork declaring that, and the individual receives a “priority date,” which also determines their place in line.

Then, the employer files a petition for the individual to become a permanent resident, and the individual can fill out the application for a green card. These two steps can often happen at the same time — unless you come from China or India, said Francis Fungsang, a Ohio-based immigration lawyer.

People from those countries have to keep checking the visa bulletin issued by the U.S. Department of State to see if green cards are available for their priority date.

“As you can see for India, (the visa bulletin) is stuck at 2012 right now,” Fungsang said.

Chokshi has dealt with many challenges while waiting for his green card, such as when he got laid off this year. Since he’s not a citizen, he wasn’t able to receive unemployment benefits. But even more pressing, he had 60 days to find a new job to maintain H-1B visa status. And it had to be one requiring specialized skills.

“I've been interviewing with a lot of companies,” Chokshi told WUNC in early November. “And I see that many companies, they may or may not be willing to file a work visa, just because they don't want to get into the immigration problems, or they don't understand. So they just try to stay away from that.”

Chokshi was able to secure a new job right before his deadline at the end of November. But he spent several weeks and also some of his savings exploring every option to stay in the country, from changing to a different visa status or going back to school to get another degree.

Chokshi said that he needs to stay in this country for his U.S.-born and raised kids, who are eight and 11.

“Sometimes I feel I didn't come here for a better life for myself,” Chokshi said. “But really, I sacrificed my life so I can give my kids a better life.”

Read More:Wunc

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