They're Here Legally, but Face Self-Deportation When They Turn 21. When Will Congress Act?

Over 200,000 dependent visa holders are still waiting for relief.


Your 21st birthday is supposed to be a happy occasion. But right now, hundreds of thousands of people who grew up in the United States are dreading it. Unless Congress acts, the lives they've built here will remain in jeopardy.

The U.S. is home to over 200,000 "Documented Dreamers," dependent visa holders who were brought to the country legally as children by parents on nonimmigrant visas. Though they're here lawfully, those dependents need to secure a work visa or sponsorship for a green card before turning 21. If they can't, they're forced to self-deport.

"Dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their undocumented parents, are shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—or DACA—program. But Documented Dreamers don't enjoy the same protections.

"The reason a lot of people are in that situation is because legal pathways don't actually exist," says Dip Patel, founder of Improve the Dream, a group that advocates for Documented Dreamers. "Most people have this misconception where an immigrant can come here, apply, and get in line. That doesn't exist for the vast majority of people."

These dependents' parents are in the U.S. on various nonimmigrant visas, including the H-1B visa for skilled workers in "specialty occupations." When parents apply for green cards, their applications may get backlogged. Documented Dreamers are predominantly from India and China. As a result of per-country caps that limit how many green cards a given country's nationals can receive in a year, their parents often face waits of years or even decades. Kids age out of their dependent status if their parents don't secure permanent residency before they turn 21. From there, the kids can try their luck at a student visa or other temporary status, self-deport, or become undocumented.

Last year, Reason spoke with Fedora Castelino and Laurens van Beek, two Documented Dreamers. Castelino, then 18, described how difficult it was "to realize that I've lived here basically my entire life," yet "this is actually not my home." Her immigration status has limited her opportunities. Without work authorization, she said, she couldn't take on a job to earn extra cash for her family. She didn't qualify for in-state tuition since she was technically an out-of-state international student. Van Beek had to self-deport to Belgium after college and postgraduate extensions, leaving his family and American life behind. It was his first international flight since arriving in the U.S. at age 7.

A proposal currently under consideration in the House and Senate would address many issues faced by Documented Dreamers, and it has rare support—Patel notes that it's the most bipartisan immigration bill in Congress right now, boasting 14 Republican and 14 Democratic House co-sponsors. In the Senate, its sponsors include Sens. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Alex Padilla (D–Calif.), and Kyrsten Sinema (I–Ariz.).

The America's CHILDREN Act would allow individuals brought to the U.S. as dependents of employment visa holders to receive permanent residency if they've been present here for 10 years (eight of which were under the age of 21) and graduated from an American university. "I think it creates something that most Americans assume is already a reality," says Patel. "That would give true certainty for everyone that's impacted by this issue of growing up here as a child of a long-term visa holder."

Another provision in the bill would establish age-out protections for dependents. Instead of those individuals aging out of their dependent status at 21, their age for adjustment purposes would be locked in as of the day their parents filed for green cards. "That ensures that since they came here as a family unit, they're allowed to stay and their application is still valid and they don't lose their place in line," explains Patel.

Reps. Deborah Ross (D–N.C.) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R–Iowa) introduced a related amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It's narrower than the America's CHILDREN Act, containing no permanent residency provision. A modified version of the America's CHILDREN Act passed the House NDAA last year, but it didn't make it into the version adopted by both chambers.

Protecting Documented Dreamers from deportation is economically important. In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas last June, officials from Amazon, Google, and Uber pushed for "more robust aging out policies," noting that current policies make it harder to attract foreign talent. That's true of the parents, but it's critical to retain the kids, too: An Improve the Dream survey found that over 99 percent of Documented Dreamer respondents pursue higher education, with 87 percent in STEM and health care fields.

But the significance of the issue goes far beyond economics. This immigration oversight affects individuals who have come here and lived here legally, identify as American, and don't remember any other country. "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," Castelino told Reason last year. "America is where I want to live. I love this country."