Opinion: Immigration inaction will cost U.S. in STEM skills

I’m a freshman at GSU studying computer science. In two years, I could be kicked out of college — and the country.
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol.

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol.

In 2016, just as I was about to enter high school, my parents sat me down. I was 14 at the time, and they explained that in 7 years — on my 21st birthday — I’d likely lose my legal status to live in America.

It was like the prophecy from a terrible fairy tale. But it was, literally, my fate. That’s because my family lived in Atlanta as legal dependents of my dad — an Indian software engineer on a temporary worker visa. We’d all applied for green cards in 2017, but the waiting list had 5 million people in it. So my parents warned me: If our number wasn’t called in time, I would need to secure my own visa to stay in America.

I was shocked. I’d lived here since I was 2, so I hadn’t fully understood my immigration status. Now I know I’m one of approximately 250,000 documented Dreamers in the U.S. Our parents are here on high-skilled, renewable visas, but when we turn 21 and cease to be dependents, we lose our spot in the green card line and lose our immigration status in one fell swoop. If we haven’t secured a student visa or our own worker visa, we have to either self-deport or live here illegally. It’s a terrible burden to put on any young person, especially since some of these visas are incredibly hard to get.

Vatsala Bajpai

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

That is why I’m asking Congress to fix America’s broken immigration system. The Biden administration recently passed new regulations that would help more foreign-born students work here temporarily after they graduate. They’re also opening new pathways to help early career researchers in STEM fields work for up to 5 years with American businesses. But none of this helps documented Dreamers like me, nor does it clear the green card backlog — currently 1.6 million people long — which created my predicament in the first place. Only comprehensive reform would protect families like ours from being torn apart.

Discovering the ticking clock over my head changed everything for me. As college approached, my friends and I were eager to pursue creative fields. We dreamed of going to art school for film direction or graphic design. But my parents said I should be thinking about a course of study that could get me a high-skilled worker visa and, eventually, a green card. Becoming an engineer, they said, was a good bet, because this country faces a massive shortage of STEM workers. In Georgia, there are many open STEM jobs annually and they are some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid careers in the state. Immigrants are already 23 percent of this workforce, according to New American Economy.

Eventually I grew excited about my new path. Today, I’m a freshman at Georgia State University majoring in computer science. When I graduate, I’ll join the 1.8 million immigrants employed in STEM industries and work either as a software engineer or a data scientist. But my immigration status is still dictating my choices. With my 21st birthday approaching, my parents and I are now discussing whether I should switch to an international student visa. This would buy me a few more years of legal residency, but it would also massively inflate the cost of my education.

Making that switch would also force me to give up my current shot at a green card; I can’t be an international student and also keep my place in the green card line. Under the White House’s new policies, I’d have three years to work in America after I graduate. But then what?

But if Congress doesn’t clear the backlog — which some simple policies could easily help achieve — I may have no choice. Just in case, I’ve been joining monthly calls with many other documented Dreamers who are all considering leaving the United States for Canada. I don’t want to go. Georgia is my home. Georgia invested in my education. Georgia is where I want to be. But if lawmakers won’t fix the mess they created for us, what other choice do we have than to take our talents elsewhere?

I hope Congress acts. If they don’t, they’ll be the ones held responsible for the worsening brain drain. The Biden administration’s latest proposal is a step in the right direction. But if this country wants to stay globally competitive, let alone fill our current worker shortages, Congress should do what it takes to keep us here. It’s not too late — for them, or for me.

Vatsala Bajpai is a freshman computer science major at Georgia State University and a state engagement liaison for the state of Georgia for Improve the Dream.