Millions of Americans are celebrating Donald Trump’s election loss. But for some of us, it’s also deeply personal. To my family, Trump’s loss means the possibility of reunification. My parents, who are Indian citizens living in the United Arab Emirates, have been waiting to spend their golden years with their daughter and grandchildren—a reward for decades of hard work that helped finance American college education for three daughters. But because of Trump, they remain alone and separated from me.
In April 2020, just as I was putting together the final stages of an arduous sponsorship application for my parents to obtain legal residency, President Trump signed an executive order upending our lives. Under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, he enacted a 60-day suspension of most immigrant visas including those that enable citizens to sponsor their non-citizen parents. Two months later, Trump added more visa categories to the ban and extended it until the end of the year.
Although the authority to change immigration laws lies with Congress, Trump managed to push through many aspects of an anti-immigrant wish list he has been touting for years. Americans like me suddenly have no access to the same rule that first lady Melania Trump used to sponsor her parents from Slovenia.
While the horrifying cases of family separation at the US-Mexico border have justifiably drawn public indignation, the spectrum of separation is broader than most Americans realize. According to the advocacy group Value Our Families, Trump’s green card ban affects people like my parents who are being sponsored by their adult U.S. citizen children, as well as the spouses and children of green card holders, and the children and siblings of US citizens. An estimated 358,000 people attempting to immigrate through available legal processes are affected.
But Trump’s green card ban is just one aspect of a mind-numbingly difficult-to-navigate immigration system. Conservatives who have for years excoriated outsiders to “get in line” and “follow the rules” have little idea of how difficult it is to immigrate. For nearly 30 years, I experienced firsthand the onerous complexity of a system designed to frustrate. I first entered the United States at the age of 16 on an F-1 visa for undergraduate study at the University of Texas at Austin. Over nearly a decade of F-1 visa renewals and nerve-racking work permit applications (at one point immigration officials lost my paperwork, threatening my status in the country), I studied, graduated, and worked.
But my work permit was temporary, and once I completed my education, there were few avenues to remain in the country I had grown to love. Eventually, I applied for a green card because I married a man lucky enough to be a US citizen. After waiting the requisite five years, I applied for citizenship and dutifully jumped through myriad and expensive hoops, only to be caught in the Bush administration’s post 9-11 anti-immigrant dragnet that delayed citizenship for thousands of people seeking naturalization. Three long years passed. It wasn’t until I became a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government that I was finally afforded my rights.
Today I face yet another obstacle. My family’s hopes are now pinned on President-elect Joe Biden—will he do the right thing to ensure my family can be together?
The good news is that there is a starting point for President-elect Biden. My congressional representative Judy Chu (D-CA) has introduced the Reuniting Families Act in the House, a bill that would, among other things, reduce the backlog of family-based visa petitions. The process for a U.S. citizen to sponsor a family member has always been arduous, expensive, and inordinately lengthy, but under Trump, the number of visas being processed fell dramatically (even before he enacted his green card bans), increasing the size of an already-formidable backlog. Chu’s bill would address the backlog by increasing the number of available visas.
The bill would also address how undocumented families are kept apart, indicating rightly that there is little difference in the pain felt by my family’s separation and that of someone who is here without papers. And it would broaden categories of sponsorship that enable families to be together.
As we wait for Biden to take the reins of government and do the right thing, my family will remain separated. Meanwhile, each day I can see from my backyard the newly built home, financed through the savings of my foreign-born parents, that sits empty and waiting for them.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations.