IOWA CITY, Iowa — They grow up in America as de facto Americans, then suddenly face the prospect of self-deportation and family separation.
An estimated 200,000 young immigrants living legally in the U.S. for years as dependents of their parents on temporary work visas are aging out of the program into a precarious legal limbo, according to immigrant advocates.
“Everything I know is American. It just doesn’t make sense for me to go back to a country that I’ve lived in for 4 months,” said Pareen Mhatre, 21, a University of Iowa senior and daughter of Indian immigrants who came to the US two decades ago and have built careers with long-term work visas.
“My family and I did everything by the book,” Mhatre said. “We have maintained documented status, and we’re still stuck in this decades long line [for a green card].”
Visa caps and lengthy backlogs for green card applications — especially for foreign nationals from India and China, who can wait up to 89 years for permanent residency, according to the American Immigration Council — have compounded the situation for children of long-term visa holders. Once they become adults, their dependent visas expire and they also get removed from pending green card applications filed together with their parents.
“There just hasn’t been enough attention to this particular flaw in the immigration system,” said Dip Patel, founder of the advocacy group Improve the Dream.
The government has granted protection and work visas to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants – known as “Dreamers” after the never-passed DREAM Act — through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but so-called “documented Dreamers” don’t qualify.
A precondition for DACA status is unlawful entry to the U.S. Children of parents on immigrant work visas like Pareen have been residing lawfully in the country.
“There are options for these young immigrants, but all of those options are backlogged for the most part,” said immigration attorney Jessica Malott. “So, it’s not something that’s a sure thing, that’s gonna happen immediately.”
In a statement to ABC News, the Department of Homeland Security cited several factors contributing to the backlogs, including the pandemic and a lack of adequate staffing, and pledged that officials are working to address the problem.
“DHS is aware of the predicament that these documented dreamers face and is working to find legal means to provide relief where possible,” the agency said.
The issue has also recently won attention from Congress, where members of the House and Senate from both parties have introduced legislation to lift the threat of deportation and the inability to work from this category of legal immigrants.
“Once you meet them, you realize what a contribution they’re already making to this country and what greater contributions they will make in the future,” said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., who is co-sponsoring the America’s CHILDREN Act in the House.
“What it does is it sets a path for residency and then, ultimately, after residency, one of these dreamers could pursue citizenship so that a young person doesn’t have to immediately self-deport,” she said of the legislation.
“These children who have legally called the United States home for many years and even decades … shouldn’t be penalized by the government’s failures in addressing green card backlogs,” Paul said in a statement.
After turning 21 in April, Mhatre was able to extend her legal status by obtaining a short-term student visa while she finishes her degree in biomedical engineering. After that she’ll have to either win an employment visa through the lottery, or self-deport to India.
“I knew that I wasn’t an American citizen, but I thought I was a permanent resident because America was the only place I had known,” Mhatre said of her upbringing in Iowa City, Iowa.
“Like “Dreamers,” we come to this country as young children. We grow up, and at a certain point – multiple points – in our lives we do face an aspect of self-deportation. But everything I know is American. It just doesn’t make sense for me to go back to a country that I’ve lived in for 4 months,” she said.
Some families have already experienced slow-rolling family separations under the policy.
Byung Yoon, a small business owner and father of three in Portland, Oregon, says his oldest son aged out of a dependent visa and had to return to South Korea on his own. His 17-year-old daughter Hilary — who’s lived in the U.S. since she was an infant — may be next.
“The only thing I know about Korea is what I see on the media or what my family says. I personally don’t have any recollection of Korea,” Hilary Yoon said.
“She does not speak Korean very well, and she does not understand Korean culture very well,” added her father. “We think that some kind of immigration law will pass through. America is an immigrant country.”
Patel, who is himself a documented dreamer from India, says he’s optimistic Congress is finally comprehending the scope of the issue and taking steps toward addressing it.
“I think finally, we’re at a point where people are starting to recognize that this was an issue in the immigration system that really needs fixing,” he said. “We’re just going to keep pushing until we can obtain it. And I hope that we’re really close.”
Mhatre, who shared her story in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, said she’s clear-eyed about the long odds any immigration reform faces but finds hope in her deep love for America.
“There were times when even I was like, why are we doing this, you know, because those times were incredibly tough for my family. But, she added, “this country is my home.”
ABC News’ Quinn Owen contributed to this report.