Aashana Vishnani is a "dreamer" in the truest sense of the word.
She came to the United States when she was only 10 years old. Her accent is more Alabamian than Indian. She loves to sing and aspires to someday perform in musicals like Rent or Hairspray. She is also a huge college football fan. Her favorite team is Auburn University, her alma mater where she received a merit-based full-tuition scholarship.
However, Vishnani has lived much of her life in fear and uncertainty. Before President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, Vishnani's legal situation was precarious. The DACA program allowed young people who came to the U.S. before age 16, have lived here continuously for five years and have met certain other criteria to apply for a work permit and stay in the country legally for the time being.
Yet, when the president announced executive action last week to shield as many as five million more undocumented immigrants from deportation, Vishnani was disappointed because her parents were not among them. "My parents are productive citizens. They work and pay taxes. They are good people, but they have to continue to hide and live in fear," Vishnani explained.
Before DACA, Vishnani saw her status fluctuate with her parents' fortunes in the immigration system. She had a work permit and got a driver's license when her parents briefly received legal status under a labor-based immigration program. However, as she was turning 21, Vishnani would no longer have been able to link her legal status with that of her parents; that would've meant giving up her right to work and her driver's license. For Vishnani, the DACA program was a savior.
That didn't mean she could live her life free of fear — just that her fears were no longer for herself, but for her parents. They've applied for legal status, but the executive action still leaves them in limbo. They're unable to function openly in society, and need Vishnani's help handling important family affairs.
The title and registration of the family car is in her name. When her parents are out of status and can't legally drive, Vishnani takes them to work and other places. Regardless, they are scared to travel very much for the fear of being asked questions about their status. Even a minor problem could force them out of the country at any moment, leaving behind their daughter and the life that they've worked so hard to build. "I feel a lot of responsibility for my parents," Vishnani said. "I wish there was something I could do to support them with their legal status."
It wasn't always so easy for her to understand her parents' choice. In her first years as student in the U.S., Vishnani didn't realize she was different from her classmates. All that changed when she turned 15 and her peers started to get their driving permits. She asked her parents when she might get her permit. What followed was a difficult conversation where her family told her that, while they had applied for legal status, nothing had come through and she wouldn't be able to get her license. Vishnani found herself frustrated and angry at her parents and isolated from her peers.
"I never asked to be brought to America, but now I have to suffer," Vishnani said. Still, she was driven to make the most of her opportunities, despite her status. Vishnani had to work extra hard in high school, aware that she couldn't rely on traditional financial aid for which she may have qualified. She participated in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program, got a 3.9 GPA and scored a 33 out of a possible 36 on her ACT test.
In college, Vishnani was a leader. She worked as a resident assistant and led alternative community service based spring break trips to places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. In addition to a full-tuition scholarship, she also received a scholarship to study abroad during her junior year, but she could not use it because she wouldn't be able to get back come back to the U. S. if she left.
As Vishnani got older, she began to view her parents' decision differently. "My parents have always prioritized me and my future because they understand that I've grown up here and it would be much harder for me to move back home," she said.
Supporting her parents has meant putting off her own dreams to move to New York and build a career in the theater. Despite the challenges, Vishnani is still grateful and hopeful.
"I feel privileged to be in America. I have lived a comfortable life here and don't feel that I am entitled to anything. But I hope that they pass the bipartisan immigration bill," she said, referring to a bill passed by the Senate last year that has stalled in the House, "so my parents and I can live here without fear."
Zishan Jiwani is a freelance reporter based in Atlanta.