RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- For the past fourteen years, Sashank Sabbineni, a rising senior at NC State, has lived in the United States.
"Growing up, Charlotte was my home. I didn't really know much about visas. I didn't even know I was on a visa. I grew up every day saying the pledge of allegiance," said Sabbineni, standing in front of the Memorial Bell Tower on campus.
It wasn't until high school when he was seeking an internship did he understand his legal limitations.
"My parents kind of broke the news to me that I wasn't like every other kid. I couldn't apply for jobs. I didn't have a Social Security number," said Sabbineni, who is studying biochemistry on a pre-med track.
He was born in India, like Fedora Castelino.
"I had a childhood growing up completely American. I don't remember what it was like not being in America. I actually grew up really wanting to serve in the US Army. I grew up interning, shadowing people, talking to veterans. And it was in high school when I realized ROTC programs wouldn't be eligible for me even though I'm through and through American. That was kind of hard to believe that my future career didn't have the aspect of the Army or the military or the ROTC that I wanted," said Castelino, who eventually moved with her family to the United States when she was 6 years old; they would ultimately settle in Apex.
Both came to the US on H-1B visas, as children of immigrants working in the country. That provides legal protection until they're 21 years old when they need to secure a green card or different visa status or face self-deportation.
"The medical school admissions for international students is incredibly hard, so it's a very stark difference," said Sabbineni.
"We have to make sure we finish our education before we turn 21. Otherwise, it gets really difficult to switch to a student visa and try to pursue our education in America," said Castelino, a rising sophomore at the University of South Carolina who is studying neuroscience.
"They don't have the protection that the Dreamers have of DACA because they were not included 10 years ago, because 10 years ago, we thought they would be able to get their paperwork in order to be able to stay here," noted Democratic Congresswoman Deborah Ross, who represents the state's second district.
Because of an immigration backlog, young people like Sabbineni and Castelino can get stuck in the process, waiting for action from officials about their ability to remain in the country.
Ross is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking to address this, supporting an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent an "aging-out" for those who have been in the US for at least eight years, allowing them to stay until either a visa number for a green card becomes available or they're able to obtain another status.
"We've invested in these kids for decades. We've paid for their education in the public schools. Their parents pay taxes. They want to stay here. And we have a shortage of skilled workers right now. So why would we want to make them deport to a country that they don't know to compete with the United States?" said Ross.
It's an issue that is especially impactful in the Triangle.
"We have so many high-skilled workers who come in to work in our universities or work in (Research Triangle Park), and they bring their kids along," said Ross.
The lack of status can also separate families like Castelino's.
"I have a younger sister. She just turned 7 years old and she's a US citizen. And we've been trying to figure out what the next steps are if self-deportation is something we have to face. I practically raised my little sister, and having to leave her behind is something that's very difficult not only on my mental health but my sister's, too," Castelino said. "And my whole family. Separation is really difficult especially when I don't know my passport country, the home of my citizenship. I never really lived in it. I moved out when I was only three months old and lived in different countries after that."
Sabbineni is grateful to no longer face that uncertainty, after his family's green card application was approved earlier this year.
"I just went berserk. I just remember in the library crying, I called my mom afterward and we were just crying together. It was just the biggest moment of happiness," said Sabbineni, who is continuing to advocate for others who remain in that situation.
Improve the Dream, an advocacy organization, estimates there are more than 200,000 "documented dreamers" in the United States, who have lived in the country for an average of 12 years.
"I got an EMT certification a couple years ago, but couldn't work as an EMT. I wanted to give back to my community, but I could not because I was legally not allowed to work. Once I got my green card, I was able to give back to my community by serving as an EMT. I was able to do an internship this summer in research, and I can actually pursue my dreams of going to medical school," said Sabbineni.
Castelino added: "I'm currently serving as a volunteer at the (Sheriff's Office) in Richland County (South Carolina) in the Citizens Academy. So that's my way of serving. But I really hope in the future I can serve as an officer in the Army."
This amendment is different from America's CHILDREN Act, which is standalone legislation that would create a conditional pathway to citizenship based on certain residency and education requirements. Ross said there are ongoing efforts to secure additional Republican support in the Senate on that bill.
"A lot of my friends and family ask me, "Why can't you just apply for citizenship?" And it's really just not that simple," Sabbineni said. "To me, it feels like either the children gets really lucky and gets a green card through their parents or they have to self-deport when they're 21 due to the lengthy backlogs. It's a case of luck, it's up in the air. A future is just up in the air. And there's just right now, no linear pathway to citizenship for documented dreamers."