A young Indian American software engineer, who has lived in the U.S. since the age of 14, faces the prospect of having to leave the country in approximately six months as she ages out of her dependent status.
Sri Ponnada, an engineer at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, moved to the U.S. from Jamaica with her mother and brother. The young woman was born in India, but has not lived there since the age of three. Ponnada’s mother Vara, a physician, came to the U.S. in 2008 with the family to do a residency in internal medicine at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in New York.
She then served asa member of a research team for the Cardiology Department at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, before joining the Hancock County Health System in Northern Iowa. Vara was granted a national interest waiver for her advanced skills, which allowed her and her dependent children to remain in the U.S.
Vara Ponnada has applied for a green card and has an approved I-140, making her eligible for a green card, but is stuck in a logjam, along with an estimated 1.5 million Indian Americans who are also awaiting employment-based legal permanent residency status.
The backlog can be attributed to the country cap mandated by Congress; Indians – the fastest-growing group of immigrants to the U.S. – may face a backlog of 70 to 300 years, noted the organization Skilled Immigrants In America, explaining that each year, people from India with approved I-140s are allotted only 7 percent of all green cards issued that year – less than 9,000.
SIIA and other Indian organizations have actively lobbied Congress to remove the per-country caps. HR 392, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, is making its way through the House. The bill – the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act – has bi-partisan support in the House, including from Indian American Reps. Ro Khanna, D-California; Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois. A similar effort in the Senate is spearheaded by Sen. Paul Rand, R-Kentucky.
H-4 children are the dependents of H-1B visa holders. An estimated 200,000 Indian American children are currently H-4 dependents, according to SIIA (see earlier India-West story here).
After finishing high school in the U.S., Ponnada attended the University of Iowa. “I’d spend my weekends tutoring students in computer science and volunteering at the public library to teach kids how to code for free,” she wrote in a poignant Facebook post.
At the University of Iowa, Ponnada volunteered at the Women’s Resource and Action Center; she also served as the president of the Women in Informatics and Computer Science club, where she engaged with many companies to start considering Iowa students for jobs in the tech industry. She also served as student body senator.
“But while I was doing all this stuff, I was still struggling with major anxiety and depression because I was scared about whether or not me and my family would get our green cards,” wrote Ponnada.
Ponnada was able to get an F-1 visa for international students. She was also able to extend her stay and work with Microsoft with an 18-month STEM-OPT status. But when that status ends in February, she will be forced to self-deport. Ponnada has applied for an H-1B, but did not get one through the lottery this year.
“I have had great opportunities in this country so far, but I still face the same anxiety I’ve had since childhood about my visa status. when my STEM OPT expires next February, I’ll have to leave my family, my friends, and my home in the United States – the only country I’ve known since I became a teenager. Where should I go? Jamaica – where I came from? Or to India where I was born but haven’t lived in since I was 3 years old?” wrote the young woman.
Ponnada has contacted Yoder and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, with whom she shares Indo-Jamaican roots. She has urged followers on Facebook to call their Congressional representatives to support the Yoder bill, and to change the trajectory of her own life.
“Everything I’ve learned, I learned in America. My family is here, my friends are here, my life is here. I think of myself as an American and contribute not only to my communities but also to the greater American economy, and I hope you see me as an American, too,” wrote Ponnada.