Once These Legal Immigrants Turn 21, They Face Deportation

With action from Congress, over 200,000 dependent visa holders could see some relief.


Fedora Castelino left India when she was only four months old, eventually settling in the United States at the age of six as a dependent on her father's H-1B visa. Now almost 19, she's staring down a deadline: In just two years, she might have to deport herself.

Castelino is one of over 200,000 "Documented Dreamers," dependent visa holders who were brought to the U.S. legally as children and have resided here lawfully since. If they can't secure a work visa or sponsorship for a green card before turning 21—a process made far more difficult by extreme application backlogs and wait times—they're forced to self-deport. "It's so hard to realize that I've lived here basically my entire life—this is actually not my home," says Castelino. "Even after finishing all my schooling in America, I'm still not in a home country, which is really hard to accept."

"These are individuals who've essentially been raised and educated here," says Dip Patel, founder of Improve the Dream, which advocates for Documented Dreamers. "This is typically the only place they've known." According to a survey conducted by Patel's organization, Documented Dreamers were, on average, just five years old when they came to the United States.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, introduced by the Obama administration, shields undocumented "Dreamers" from deportation. Around 650,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children through no fault of their own are protected. But Documented Dreamers have received comparatively little attention from politicians. 

Last year, Rep. Deborah Ross (D–N.C.) and a bipartisan group of sponsors introduced the America's Children Act, which outlines certain protections for Documented Dreamers. It would provide a pathway to permanent residency, lock an applicant's age on the green card application date rather than require the securement of a visa by 21, and allow Documented Dreamers to work while their green card applications are pending. A narrower version of that legislation may also pass in the form of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which the House is taking up this week.

Patel explains that it's critical for lawmakers to make strides this year, since there will be a new Congress after December. "Right now I think there's a lot of momentum to get this issue resolved. For the longest time, there wasn't any attention given to this," he says. "I think there's a really good opportunity to get it done."

Immigrants like Castelino have been forced to put their dreams on hold due to the uncertainty of their status in the country. "I was denied a lot of internship opportunities," she explains, since her H-4 dependent visa doesn't grant her work authorization. That meant she couldn't take on a job to help provide her family with some extra cash. Nor did she qualify for in-state tuition while applying to college, since she was technically an out-of-state international student.

She eventually secured a scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina, where she'd hoped to join an ROTC program. "Serving in the U.S. Army was something I worked towards," Castelino says. "I soon realized that I can't even get admission in an ROTC program without permanent residency or citizenship." She's since decided to major in pre-med and hopes to secure work visa sponsorship that way. "We can't really risk taking a degree that we're super passionate about," Castelino explains, "and not have any future in it."

Unfortunately, Laurens Van Beek's clock has already run out. Coming from the Netherlands, he had lived in the U.S. since he was seven as a dependent on his parents' visas. After eventually securing an international student visa to study at the University of Iowa and qualifying for postgraduate extensions, he had to leave the country last week at the age of 24. It was his first international flight since the one that brought him to the United States. He's now living in Belgium while his employer tries to secure an employment-based visa for him to return home.

"These kids are American in pretty much every way of life, except for a piece of paper that says they are," says Van Beek. "For most of these people who have to go back, they're getting thrown into a culture that they don't know." He says his circumstances are very fortunate since he's stayed in touch with European family and still speaks Dutch, but calls that "the exception to the norm."

Self-deportations tear families apart. They also put America's competitiveness at risk. "A system focused on retaining the best talent means acknowledging that immigration is inherently a family affair," explains Sam Peak, an immigration analyst at Americans for Prosperity. "We've seen countless examples of engineers, physicians, and other professionals who feel like they need to choose between their children and their professional lives."

Major tech companies have been pushing the Biden administration to offer relief to Documented Dreamers. In a letter last month, officials from Amazon, Google, and Uber urged Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to "establish more robust aging out policies" for Documented Dreamers, pointing out that the current policies make it more difficult to recruit foreign talent. "Families are already leaving the U.S. in favor of countries who have streamlined their systems to attract more talent," Peak says.

"I wouldn't be fighting so much to push this information out and push this news out if I didn't truly love living in America," says Castelino. "Then I would just easily self-deport and it wouldn't really affect me. America is where I want to live. I love this country."