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

Shristi Sharma, a young Indian woman with long black hair in a light blue sweater, stands outside in the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.
Eli Chen
UNC-Chapel Hill student Shristi Sharma's family has waited so long to receive green cards that after graduation, she may have to consider self-deporting to India or moving to another country for work if she can't find an American employer to sponsor her for a H-1B skilled worker visa.

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.”

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.
UNC Chapel Hill junior Shristi Sharma

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.

A 42-year-old Indian man, Mehul Chokshi, wears jeans and a red t-shirt, sits on a flight of stairs in his home in Apex.
Eli Chen
Apex resident Mehul Chokshi, 42, has been waiting for a green card since 2016. This year, he's also had to deal with getting laid off and having to find a new job within 60 days to maintain visa status.

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.”

Waiting for change at the federal level

For years, Morrisville Council Member Steve Rao has heard from a lot of long-term H-1B visa holders.

“And it still is today – getting calls about expediting visas, passport issues,” Rao said. “It's just there's such a backlog – hundreds of thousands of people waiting to get the green card. And so that's why we see so many Indian Americans, particularly in the Triangle, who have been waiting 10, 12, 13 years and still having a hard time getting their citizenship.”

A middle-aged Indian man in a suit, Morrisville town Council Member Steve Rao stands in front a brick wall.
Courtesy of Steve Rao
Morrisville Council Member Steve Rao has heard from many Indians who are long-term H-1B visa holders and have waited years for green cards.

According to data collected by town officials, 46% of the residents in Morrisville, which has a population of about 31,000, are of Indian descent, and Indian communities have also grown in Cary and Apex in recent years.

A lot of those residents are working at tech companies, such as IBM, Cisco Systems, and other companies at Research Triangle Park, Rao said. But he argued that if things don’t change, North Carolina and the U.S. as a whole will lose valuable workers who end up having to self-deport or move to countries like Canada that have recently set up programs to attract skilled tech workers.

“There's an economic benefit, in terms of having these skilled immigrants stay in the US to pay taxes, to create jobs, to start companies,” Rao said. “And I'm really concerned that they're gonna leave and do it somewhere else.”

The H-1B visa program was launched in 1990 as a way to address major labor shortages in the rapidly growing science and tech industry. And over the years there have been many measures and bills introduced in Congress to try and address all kinds of issues that H-1B visa holders grapple with.

Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties this month introduced a bill that would eliminate the 7% per country capon green cards. Earlier this year, North Carolina Congresswoman Deborah Ross co-sponsored the America’s Children Act, which would help the children of long term H-1B visa holders, like Shristi Sharma, remain in the U.S. legally instead of having to self-deport back to India.

“So many of them are in college. Many of them want to enter the military. But really America is the only place that they know as home,” Ross said. “And they would be split from their families and have to self deport to a country they barely know.”

But many of these bills have had a low success rate in terms of getting passed, said lawyer Francis Fungsang.

“There's been no change in immigration law since like the mid-nineties,” Fungsang said. “So many bills get discussed that it’s tough to keep track of them all.”

Working hard to stay in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Shristi Sharma keeps herself busy with school and her advocacy work. Sharma is a scholarship recipient of the prestigious Robertson Scholars Program with Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, which she said helped tremendously when she discovered in high school that her visa status made her not eligible for federal financial aid, or FAFSA. Her workload these days includes doing research with one laboratory to study Alzheimer’s disease, working with Cornell University’s Aerospace Adversary Lab to develop international space standards for satellite cybersecurity, and serving as president of Duke Cyber, a club that participates in cybersecurity competitions.

My parents work around the clock to get our visas extended
They don’t let me see the worst of it
We persist.
They find a way to stay
I get a full-ride to college
life seems back on track.

I scroll through social media to find a new threat:
Three years left to become a permanent resident
Age-out, and I’m forced to leave
To go back to a country I haven’t lived in, for over 13 years.
I have never envied a green document so much
I keep reading the post.

They say there are over 200 thousand of us
I start following them
I read other’s stories. I reach out to them.
We connect, we listen, we share, we support
Together, we advocate.
For an America where we belong
For an official status that finally declares:
We are Americans too.

— an excerpt from a poem Shristi Sharma wrote during her freshman year in college for an essay contest

On top of that, she’s North Carolina’s representative for Improve the Dream, an organization that advocates to protect young people in her position from having to self-deport. But ultimately, her ability to stay in the country will be left up to chance – the chance that an employer will be willing to sponsor a H-1B visa for her and even the chance that lawmakers in Congress will care enough to change immigration policy that’s been around longer than she’s been alive.

“We've lived here all of our lives,” Sharma said.”We've gone to public schools, we've got an American education. So we really want to just give back to this country that has raised us.”

If you are a long-term H-1B visa holder or a young foreign national also facing the possibility of self-deportation, we’d like to hear your story for our continuing coverage of this issue. Please contact reporter Eli Chen at elichen@wunc.org

Eli Chen is WUNC’s afternoon digital news producer.