'This is home:' Children of legal immigrants in North Carolina fear deportation when they turn 21

MORRISVILLE, N.C. (WTVD) -- The irony is Preethi Kandori has lived in Wake County longer than many of her neighbors moving here from the Northeast.

"I moved to Morrisville, North Carolina, when I was six years old, and now I'm 20," Kandori said. "My whole life has been here. This is my home."

Kandori has been able to live here thanks to her father's long-term work visa, which he obtained more than a decade ago to get a tech job in Research Triangle Park.

"I can't imagine what I could be if I hadn't grown up here," Kandori said. "I went to elementary school, middle school and high school down the road. I grew up here as a child planning college, a job, and a life. Now there's no certainty in any of that."

The looming uncertainty comes from the fact that, according to the laws of the United States, Kandori will lose her protected status as a child of a working immigrant when she turns 21. She will then have to self deport or find another legal pathway to stay in the country.

"It's very frightening. It's very frustrating," Kandori said. "I'm trying to block this out so much. I'd have to leave my little sister, leave my parents, my friends. It's difficult to think of a life without anything I've known and I've gotten close to. Try to imagine an American kid that grew up here. How would they have a contingency plan if they had to leave the country?"

Documented Dreamers

Kandori is one of an estimated 200,000 children of documented immigrants that have become known as "Documented Dreamers," according to the organization Improve The Dream.

The organization, founded in 2017, reports most children arrive on average at 5 years old and have been living here for an average time of over 12 years.

"The basic principle of this issue is these American kids are being kicked out of the country," Dip Patel, the organization's president, said. "We're advocating for change that permanently ends 'aging-out' and provides a path to citizenship for every child who grows up in the United States. Most Americans assume there's already a policy in place for people with a documented status."

Indeed, there are some policies in place to temporarily extend status, including applying for international student or even a work visa. Those options, however, come with significant drawbacks because they lack guarantees and involve a lottery process. These visa applicants, moreover, must show "non-immigrant" intent.

"You have to show you're not going to be in the country permanently, which is really hard when you've been living in the country almost permanently," Patel said.

Konduri, who turns 21 in March, has been active in lobbying government officials both in North Carolina and in Washington, and their efforts appear to be bearing some fruit with the introduction of America's CHILDREN Act (Cultivation of Hope and Inclusion for Long-term Dependents Raised and Educated Natively).

"My Wake County community is one of many across the country that has flourished because of immigrant workers, who spend years growing our economy and raising their children as Americans," Congresswoman Deborah Ross (D-North Carolina) said. "It is unconscionable that when these children, known as Documented Dreamers, reach the age of 21, they can be forced to self-deport to countries they might not even remember, splitting their families apart."

According to the bill's bipartisan sponsors, the America's CHILDREN Act would provide "age-out protection" while also creating a conditional pathway to citizenship, which requires ten years residency and graduation from an American college or university.

"They have to meet certain marks in order to get that status. They can't get that status and do nothing," Ross added. "This is bipartisan because people see the impact that immigrants have had had on this community.

Green card issues

While the America's CHILDREN Act would undoubtedly provide relief for many immigrant families like the Kandori's, the issue of Documented Dreamers also provokes discussion about the broader issue of permanent resident status in America and the growing difficulty for families - even those who have been here for decades - to get a green card.

"The fact that the green card backlog is decades long, it has to be addressed," Patel said. "This is one of the root causes."

America's legal immigration system, which hasn't had a major congressional overhaul since the 1980s, is a mess of letters and acronyms even immigration attorneys, let alone voters, have a hard time comprehending. Generally, long-term non-immigrant visa holders (including H-1B, L-1, E-1, and E-2 workers) are welcome to apply for a permanent resident card, but there is a yearly cap of 140,000 green cards issued. The green cards, moreover, are further capped based on the immigrant's country of birth.

"Part of it is the idea to not give one country special treatment over another and give everyone the opportunity to get an employment-based green card if they meet criteria," Nam Douglass, an Raleigh-based immigration attorney, said. "Most of the workers from China and India are at least a Bachelors degree or higher degree - those are the categories in particular that have that bottleneck."

The wait, thus, is going on 14 years and counting for the Kandoris. Preethi, meanwhile, continues to advocate for change even if the law won't be changed in time to her benefit.

"I have to have hope at the end of the day."
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