Silent Struggles of Immigrant Children

Three immigrant students share the impacts of their visa status

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Sahana Gujja

Senior Sahana Gujja and her mom proudly hold up a diploma at her mother’s graduation. Gujja’s mom graduated from the University of Illinois Springfield under a student visa, where she completed her second master’s degree. “I remember feeling excited and happy for her when they called her name, and she walked up towards the stage,” Gujja said. “I saw her study hard for the past two years before that while taking care of me simultaneously, and I was just really proud that she was a good mother. She is a great mother, and she accomplished everything she hoped for at the same time.”

Anyone who has taken an American history course has heard of the melting pot analogy. Immigration has always been central to American history, and even today, America welcomes people from around the globe. However, immigrating and getting American citizenship has gotten more complex. It can take up to 10 years for most immigrants to get a green card and at least five more to get citizenship. Students that are still in this process nearing graduation are facing another struggle altogether, one that is virtually unknown by most peers or teachers. 

Senior Sindhu Kalabhavi

For senior Sindhu Kalabhavi, her delayed green card process will have a lasting impact on her future. Her family first immigrated to the United States when she was in kindergarten, and they are currently five years into their green card process. 

“Being an immigrant is a pretty unique experience. It’s like I’m caught between two worlds and exist in a separate space,” Kalabhavi said. “I’m glad [my family immigrated] because it’s hard to imagine my life not being here. I would be a totally different person. It benefited my future and my quality of life. The environment is a lot cleaner with less pollution, and there are more opportunities to explore, learn and meet different types of people.”

Kalabhavi is still dependent on her father’s H-1B work visa, but she can only stay on it for three more years. Then, once she turns 21, she will have to get her student or work visa.

“I had a friend whose dad’s work visa expired, so they had to move [out of the country]. It was really sudden. It’s hard to adjust to the educational system [in that scenario], and you’d be completely shifting your focus. Everything you wanted to do growing up, you probably wouldn’t be able to do anymore. You’d have to create a new path for yourself and probably change your career choice,” Kalabhavi said. “It’s a loss of control over your own life. There’s that fear that since we’re not citizens, anything could go wrong. It’s always in the back of my head.”

As long as Kalabhavi is under a work visa, she is forced to go into a specific career field that is prioritized by job companies or in high demand. This includes mainly technical skills and STEM-related fields like engineering or computer science. If Kalabhavi doesn’t find such a job by the time she is 21, she might be forced to leave the country. However, Kalabhavi says that she has virtually no other options and has to follow the career path that has been chosen for her. 

“[Immigrating here] is harder than most people think. It’s a long, complicated and confusing process,” Kalabhavi said. “I’m just going to do what is planned for me because it’s easier than going out and searching for other options. This is the only path that I know. I have to choose one of those fields if I want to get my work visa or get married to someone here. I’m going to do a lot of things because I just have to, chasing that sense of safety and survival before my passions or personal interests.”

If she gets her green card, Kalabhavi can pursue more diverse career options without worrying about her visa or sponsorship by a company. For example, she wishes she could study graphic design or urban planning, both fields that are more creative than technical, but her parents ultimately disagree.

“I think graphic design is a really good combination of what I do with art and combining it with technology. I like listening to people’s ideas, putting my own twist on them and trying to bring their vision [to life],” Kalabhavi said. “My parents sympathize with me to a certain extent, but they also believe that doing a computer science degree provides financial stability. In their eyes, they think it’s worth it to get through it for four years to be secure and then doing whatever I want after that.”

Kalabhavi says her struggle with her visa is essentially unknown by most of her peers or teachers, and she believes that there’s an educational aspect missing when it comes to the immigration process. Most of her American friends don’t understand why her visa status could impact her college major, and in some cases, she has even been asked if she was an illegal immigrant or got deported when she left the country. 

“For me, I don’t need to like [computer science]. It would be nice if I could grow to like it, but it’s just a job. I don’t need to like it to pursue it,” Kalabhavi said. “Sometimes, there’s difficulty with actually following your passion as well. It can be really hard to separate your job from your interest because you won’t feel that same fulfillment that you did before. So it goes both ways [because] I want to be passionate about my job, but I can also lose that sense of passion if I do it. I’d rather not force myself to be passionate about what I do.”

Senior Sahana Gujja

Senior Sahana Gujja is experiencing similar trials as she plans her future career, though she is considered a nonimmigrant or someone immigrating for temporary reasons. Her mother immigrated to the United States on a student visa for her graduate degree, and she is now on an H-4 work visa. Gujja is dependent on her mother’s visa and is around five years into her green card process.

“[Immigrating here] gave me more opportunities. I don’t make it known that I’m on a different visa. I have the same opportunities as everyone else except for work, but [my visa status] limits my options to increase my experience and build up a resume,” Gujja said.

Gujja initially wanted to pursue oncology, but since she will have to get a work visa once she turns 21, she has to choose a career track that companies will want to sponsor. Gujja plans to pursue computer science and biology side by side until she gets her green card.

“I had family relatives who had cancer in the past couple of years. I’ve also always been interested in genetics, [so] I wanted to go on the oncology track,” Gujja said. “[My family] wants me to do computer science because it’s the safest choice, and it’s in the market right now. Once I turn 21, I’ll have my visa, which means my tuition will be more expensive. People want me to choose the safer choice because then I wouldn’t have to go into even more debt and could find a job quicker. That’s one of the huge things [about my visa].”

For Gujja, her visa status affects her beyond her future career. Since she is considered an international student, she’s not eligible for the FAFSA, and scholarships and internships are also very limited. She also can’t apply for a job to finance her college education since she is on a dependent visa.

“[Pursuing oncology after getting a green card] is also an option because my company can pay for my education once I get a job,” Gujja said. “I think I’m going to do a mix of oncology and computer science because I don’t want to be 25 [years old] and then pursue a bachelor’s degree in science. I feel like I’ll have more opportunities now.”

Like Kalabhavi, Gujja wishes her peers were more informed and sensitive about immigration.

“None of this is known to anyone here. They think it’s a one-year process, and no one understands it’s a 10-year process. It’s not easy to come here and become a citizen,” Gujja said. “My mom supports me either way, [but] I never wanted to do computer science. I’m just [starting to] understand where my mom is coming from.” 

Junior Kyaara Goyal

Junior Kyaara Goyal immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa, and she had similar struggles until this year when her dad received his green card. There was a time when her family was ready to leave the country at a moment’s notice after her dad was fired from his job.

“It was a very stressful time. I was trying to take everyone’s stress on me and make sure they were fine,” Goyal said. “I was scared [we might have to leave the country] because not everybody gets an opportunity to come to America and study, and I had that chance. If it gets taken from me, I would have to start over in a new place. It’s a cycle I wish wasn’t a cycle because it’s not for some people.”

Because her green card has not arrived yet, Goyal can’t get a job or a license, meaning that there is only one driver in her family.

“If my dad goes on a work trip, we’re stuck in the house. I’ll have no way to come to school because the bus doesn’t come [to my neighborhood]. It also stresses my dad because he has to go back and forth. It’s really hard,” Goyal said.

Because Goyal’s green card will arrive before she goes to college, she has the opportunity to choose her career field like most of her peers. She hopes to become a professional soccer player one day and study psychology in school.

“I’ve been playing soccer since I was a little kid. It’s my happy place. I’m in love with it, and I will pick soccer over anything. My parents would have been upset [if I was forced into a career] because they want me to do what I want to do. They tell me whatever I do, I need to be the best at it and just do it for me,” Goyal said. “It makes me feel like I was meant to be where I am today. If I had to leave, I know this wasn’t meant for me and that something better is coming.” 

Goyal wishes her peers were less judgemental about immigrants, especially since they are largely unaware of immigrants’ challenges.

“[Immigrants] spend so much money and work hard to fight to be here, and it’s not fair,” Goyal said. “Always consider that people go through things they don’t talk about. Just be kinder human beings because we’re all people. We’re not animals. You can’t treat someone like an animal just because they’re not one of you.”