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She came to Georgia as a young child -- but at 21, this GSU student's legal status will run out

Vatsala Bajpai has lived in Alpharetta for most of her life and is now trying to push for legislation before she's pushed out of the country.

ATLANTA — As immigration continues to make national headlines, there's a group of young immigrants who say they don't fit the narrative and are working to highlight why.

They call themselves documented dreamers -- and Vatsala Bajpai is one of them.

What is a documented dreamer?

"We are very similar to the DREAMER population, the only difference is that we came here on a visa and stayed here legally," she explained. "The United States is our home but once we turn 21, we are kicked out of our parents' visa status - so we are no longer dependents of our parent's visas."

The Alpharetta resident came from India at two years old and has lived in Georgia ever since. She came on her father's long-term work visa, but as she gets older, she says she's at risk of getting too old to qualify for her father's visa. She's one of 7,000 immigrants in Georgia facing a similar fate, according to Improve the Dream.

"They basically just think that we would be covered by DACA -- but we're not," she said.

Challenges documented dreamers face

Bajpai was not always aware of what her documentation status meant. By the time she was ready to get her first job, she learned the true limitations of being a documented dreamer. 

"A lot of my friends were applying for a summer job just to get some cash and stuff, so I wanted to do that too," she said. "My parents sat me down and told me that because of the visa that you're on, you're not allowed to work. You won't be able to vote, you won't be able to do a lot of stuff."

That would not be her only hurdle.

Without a social security number, she had difficulty getting a driver's license and struggled to get financial aid. Even pursuing higher education has proven to be a challenge.

"This was one of the hardest challenges that I had to face when I was applying to colleges. I had to apply as an international student," she said. "So when I was applying on the Common App, I was being asked questions like 'What is your home country?', which felt really weird answering those questions because America is my home."

Now Bajpai is entering her sophomore year at Georgia State University studying computer science, and because of her immigration status, she's technically listed as an international student, which removes options for federal loans, grants and excludes her from many state scholarships as well. Because of GSU's policies, she was able to sign a waiver to pay in-state tuition, but not all documented dreamers get that privilege and each institution handles immigration status differently.

She said her waiver is a temporary fix compared to the decision she's facing as she approaches 21 years old. 

Few options to stay

"We either have two options," she said about documented dreamers at risk of aging out of their family's visa. "Which is we have to switch to a student visa or we have to self-deport back to our country."

She calls it a catch-22.

"The issue with getting a student visa is that one of the requirements is to have nonimmigrant intent. But a lot of our parents have applied for green cards for permanent residency in the U.S., which shows immigrant intent, and since we have been living here for most of our lives, we don't really have a home or family back in our home country," she explained.

These policies make it to where many student visas end up getting denied, and for the few that are approved, their journey to green card status, or permanent residency, becomes twice as long.

"Once we are off our parent's visas and we are on a student visa, we're basically kicked out of the line. And once we do find an employer that will be willing to sponsor our green card, we will be put back all the way back into the line, which is currently it's like 100 something years away," Bajpai said, noting the country's backlog.

That's why this Immigrant Heritage Month - which runs through June - she's honoring her roots and working with the youth-led organization Improve the Dream to fight for herself, and 200,000 other documented dreamers like her, to stay in the U.S.

Legislation that could improve the dream

In May, Bajpai along with other youth advocates took their fight to Washington D.C. to speak to Congress and shed light on the bill they believe is the best solution to the many hardships that come with being a documented dreamer.

Bajpai went to her congresswoman Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux to make sure Georgia lawmakers would support America's Children Act

Credit: Vatsala Bajpai
Vatsala Bajpai with Improve the Dream organizers

"The immigration issues are extremely frustrating," Bourdeaux said of her conversation with Bajpai. "On a positive side, this is a bipartisan bill."

Bourdeaux is a co-sponsor of the bill and she also believes it's a stepping stone for many students who are running out of options. 

Basically, once these young people turn 21, then they have no way of applying for a green card. And so we need to make sure that they can at least apply for one after that point as well," Bourdeaux said. 

The bill will provide documented dreamers with work permits, keep them in the green card line and protect them from aging out of the U.S. visa system. 

But it won't be easy. 

America's Children Act is part of a bigger immigration package that focuses on immigrants brought to the country at a young age, among other loopholes. Though the package has received pushback from Republicans, this particular bill has seen support from both sides of the aisle. Documented dreamers hope this will be enough to create change as they sit in legal limbo, but it has yet to come up for a vote.

How to help

Bajpai said the legislation is half the battle when so many people don't realize that thousands of children fall within this gap in the U.S. immigration system. She's shared ways for people to amplify Improve The Dream's message.

Raise awareness

Bajpai said to share articles and videos, especially personal testimonies of people who consider themselves documented dreamers.

Take action

The GSU student said people can visit AmericasChildrenAct.com to gain resources and act on the issue. People can learn how to call their U.S. Senators and local lawmakers to support legislation that will help bring solutions.

Education

The nation's immigration laws change every day as the green card backlog grows more extensive. Bajpai said people can visit Improvethedream.org to learn about such changes and follow them on social media.

   

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