I'm your host, Taylor Phillips.
Today, the MRD Lab team sat down with Akash Patel, who serves as the Senior Program Advisor in the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
We wanted to learn about Akash's work with refugees, specifically how his experience as an undocumented person shaped his life and work as an immigration lawyer and advocate.
Thank you again for meeting with us, Akash. To start, I want to ask if you can start off by introducing yourself.
Yeah, thanks for having me. And thanks for everybody's shared passion and enthusiasm for these issues that affect people of color, and immigrants, and just all of your work that you've been doing in this space. So thank you. So again, my name is AKASH PATEL. I'm currently a Senior Program Advisor at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). And ORR sits within the Administration for Children and Families, which is within the Department of Health and Human Services. And I'll come back to that later why that matters.
Even though we have an immigration mandate, we're actually housed in Health and Human Services and not DHS, because that's a common misconception. I'll explain why that's important. But my background is as an asylum and immigration lawyer. It's my own sort of experiences being an immigrant and being undocumented that's led me to this path to get to have one of my dream jobs eventually, frankly, at ORR and really allows me to try to contribute to spaces like this to help educate and empower other people.
Perfect. And so can you just tell me a little bit about your personal life? I did have to do some searching and I found an old TED talk you did. I think when you were senior at OU?
Oh, no, that was a long time ago.
Yeah but it was really inspiring. And I saw how your background has guided your path and directly into your work. So I was wondering if you could talk about that a little.
Yeah, thank you for asking. Thank you for doing some sleuthing and watching my very cringe TED Talk. So I'll give you the long version. So I was born in the UK. I was born in London. And so has my sister. So my parents had their arranged marriage in India, and they thought they would start their life in London, so that's where they went. My sister and I were both born there, and then we came to the States for several reasons. I think probably the same reasons that most people move here. One is because you know the increasing trend of many families moving here. So we want to keep the family together. We want to keep up with our aunts, uncles, and cousins who are also coming to America. And so that felt natural for us also just to follow them to the States. And then, of course, the other big reason is, you know, the American Dream. Opportunities in London at the time were not great, but everyone talked about all the chances to succeed, and you'll make a better life for their kids in America. So that's what they came here to do.
We came up with visitor visas. And that's really where, like, the fun part of the story ends. Because everything after that is the hard part. But we didn't realize it takes forever to adjust status from that temporary visitor visa to eventually getting green cards and eventually becoming citizens. So what happened is that we arrived for the visitor visas and then immediately petitioned for permanent residents. The issue is that before we got here from London, the advice we had gotten from family and other lawyers was that it would only take a few years to get a green card, so you would be fine in the interim in the US while you're working and waiting to adjust your status. But that was not accurate at all. The backlog of the wait time for our visa category coming from the UK was 16 years. And so, not only did we pretty soon fall out of our legal status from our visitor visa, but that sort of undocumented period persisted for that entire 16 years because that's how long it took for us to get our green cards.
So then the question we have often gotten is then well why not go back to where you came from to wait out that period of time so at least you're not living in the shadows while you're doing that. That's a fair question. And the answer is actually kind of simple. You know, once your family has already left everything to come here, you don't really have the resources to go back. You've already sold everything, and you've already spent all your money, you don't really have a place to go back to and go back across the world again. The other reason is more complicated. In the 90s, a law was passed that said if every year in the US unlawfully, and then you leave, even with the intention of you know coming back legally and trying to come back to a consular processing deal. They'll punish you for that, for the mere fact that you were ever here unlawfully, and that triggers a 10-year ban. And this is a really famous flaw in the system. Because the intention of Congress was to say, well, we're tired of all these visa overstays. So we're going to say is, if you overstay your visa, if ever, you try to leave and come back, we're going to penalize you by banning you from trying to re-enter. You can see though, how that obviously creates the opposite effect. You've actually incentivized people to stay here out of fear because we know that even if you tried to leave and come back illegally, and go through that consular processing, you've punished us for having been here undocumented in the first instance. So why would anyone leave?
We were in a catch-22. So that's why we stayed. After that 16 years, it took another six years for us to become citizens. And so, from start to finish, it took me about 22 years to become a citizen. And I had been in the US since I was a year and a half old. So really, you know, pursuing my citizenship was a lifelong pursuit. My life's work is trying to become a citizen and naturalize my family. And in some ways, that, again, is the good news. In a sense, my parents and I "made it," you know, we at least landed on this solid ground, eventually. It's my sister's case and my sister's story that is the basis for everything I've done in the field of immigration and part of what I touched on in that TED Talk. Because this is another famous flaw in the immigration system, and it's called aging out. Because my sister had turned 21 before we got to green cards, she has kicked off the petition. And that's, that's what's referred to as aging out. The government considers that individual to be an adult, so they expect that person to start over and adjust their own status, which makes no sense at all. She was on the petition as long as I had been. And my sister like, and my parent's daughter, she's like power family unit, there's no reason for her not to be able to adjust status. It makes no sense. But that's what happened.
And so I'm gonna go off on a tangent to talk about my sister for a second because she's just she's too cool not to talk about. She's the cooler, better, smarter version of me, and you'll see why. So she knew that she was about to become you really indefinitely undocumented, but really no pathway to citizenship at all. And this is when she was also going to graduate from the University of Oklahoma after already finishing her Bachelor's in microbiology. So then she realized, well, I'm really screwed, because this is the part where I'm not gonna be able to go to grad school, or to get into internships or publish you research or really do anything in the interim.
She really didn't want to keep going to school, go to med school, or get her Ph.D. or something, but she couldn't. So then she tried to figure out what to do in that time where she was still in limbo, to keep learning to keep studying because it was really important to my sister. My sister's name is Nisha. It's essential to Nisha to be able to stay relevant in her field in microbiology, But as an undocumented person, how do you do that when you can't, you know, safely and legally work, intern, research, get funding to support yourself and your stuff. But OU was gracious enough to let her work at their anthropology and genetics lab to keep doing research and keep doing work. And they knew that she was undocumented, but they let her contribute because they liked her. Obviously, she's really good at what she does and very popular in her lab. What's crazy is that she ended up just immersing herself in this, you know, volunteer research work and basically did a full time for no pay at all for 40 plus hours a week. Just really immersed in this research in diabetes and chronic illness and genetics and did this for 40 hours a week for months and months and actually did this for four years, which is insane to me, because I can't really imagine doing anything full-time like that without like any expectation that you will get anything out of it. Like the no income, yeah, no income, nothing. My parents were able to help support her. And so she wasn't given anything to survive during that time and was really limited because my parents and I were able to help support her.
In that way, we still recognize we had some privilege and survived the system. But barely. And that's the kind of person like my sister is. She was just indefatigable, just unstoppable. And so, she kept grinding because she knew that the one thing she had control over was herself. Even if she couldn't control what was gonna happen with her case, with the immigration system, she at least had control over herself and her studies. And so she was gonna keep devoting herself to becoming the best scientist she could become. And in that time, she'd even discovered a novel strain of diabetes, but then couldn't publish it and couldn't get any credit for it and couldn't get any funding for it. So she had to give that project away and let someone else publish it. That's the kind of thing that she just like endured and kept working through because all she wanted to do was to keep active in her field. Eventually, a miracle happened, which was President Obama's DACA program.
DACA is what helped save my sister's life and almost a million other people. Because it's what allowed people like her to get her social, and to get a driver's license, to be protected from deportation, and to go back to school, or go to work. So immediately, we enroll her in DACA. Like as soon as it comes out, the first thing she does is she gets enrolled at OU in the Ph. D. program in microbiology. And so OU was really gracious to say, listen, we know you did all this work for us. So we're just going to contribute all that towards your Ph. D program, which'll cut a couple of years because you've done too much for at least some of that work to not count like that needs to. And so I think that was really like the first time my sister could see that, oh, this is worth it. Like this is a thing that I was able to do, and I'm actually being rewarded for it. And she wasn't even expecting it. So that was a really nice like motivator for her. And of course, Nisha, being who she was, the first thing that happens is she discovers this other strain of this bacteria that have never been discovered before. So novel bacterium, so she publishes this.
This is when her career like really begins to skyrocket. So then, she started traveling to like India, Scotland, and London, all across the US and talked about her research. And what's interesting is, apparently, there are very few people in the world that can do the kind of anaerobic taxonomy that my sister can do. And OU is actually one of what I think is only one of six labs in the world that has dedicated anaerobic-like chambers to work with these kinds of bacteria. So my sister was actually becoming well known in this field because there were so few of them. Anyway, this is relevant because she then started getting calls for collaborations with the NIH, the CDC, and the USDA, and was just killing it, just doing really cool work, loving it and going to conferences. And then we realized, well, actually, there's a pathway to citizenship through this. When you're such a skilled worker in a specialized field, you can get what's called the Extraordinary Ability Visa. So that's perfect. We've we already have this, like a really long track record of success. We have all of these, you know, US agencies that will vouch for her. So we filed for what's called the EB-2 visa for extraordinary ability. And it was a long packet. It was easily over 500 pages because you must show all these different types of evidence that you're extraordinary in this way and that way, and you have letters of support from all these different people. You have to produce your Google citation numbers. You have to like go into like a forensic analysis of the impact you've had on your field.
And the sort of the gold star we had for this petition was, let me back up for a second, one of the things that made us realize we should do this was one day one specific collaboration she had. She got this package in the mail at the lab, and her professor said, we need you to isolate and characterize this DNA in the sample, but I can't tell you what it is. It's confidential. I can tell you later, but I need you to do the work now. So she does it. It turns out that NASA collected this bacteria sample. And it was collected at the International Space Station. So this is literally space bacteria, collected in space, and sent back down, you know, to our planet. And of all the labs in the world, it could go to it goes to OU. And of all the people they thought to ask to do it to characterize the DNA was my sister because you happen to be working with one of the foremost experts in the world on it. And so she got to characterize space bacteria for NASA literally. And so then she gets to publish this too and then gets a job offer from NASA to go work in the Jet Propulsion Lab in southern California because NASA is trying to get into the space in microbiology because they know that as we occupy more area in space. We're going to confront the same problems on Earth. We're going to have new bacteria. We're gonna have new viruses, and we're going to be able to protect astronauts from those environments. And so we include all of that stuff in the petition. And I've got I think this is a slam dunk, there's so clearly like in the public interest. You've got these US agencies who want her to work for them. And, of course, immigration comes back to us with an RFE, a Request for Evidence, because they say that my sister has not proven she was extraordinary enough.
Of course, I'm just like, "This is absurd." And this is what many, many petitioners go through because one of the biggest problems with the system is that the people adjudicating these petitions are just random bureaucrats. They're not scientists or engineers. They're not scholars. They're not researchers. So they don't really understand the importance of the field in which they're adjudicating benefits, so it makes no sense. So it's not really fair to anybody. So then, one of the things asked for was letters of support from other scientists who could attest that they know of her work. So I help her identify scientists around the world who would write letters of support for her, and we found them. There were scientists in Israel in, Spain, and Germany, the UK, Peru. Canada, and the US like there are people who had heard of her and cited her work.
So we collected all these letters. And I helped her do that and help create a template for all of them to talk about her work. We submitted the extra 40 pages of letters we got, and immigration denied it outright. And so we thought, well, that's just again, one of the famous flaws in the system that this thing is supposed to be able to avail yourself of this benefit of being extraordinary means nothing, because the people with authority to decide who's extraordinary don't know what they're doing. So my sister then goes back to NASA and says "Well, is the job offer like real? Can I actually go work for you, and maybe you can sponsor me and give me a green card that way?" And it turns out they can't hire her because she's on DACA. So it's ironic. You have one agency of the government that actively wants to hire her, and the other, another agency of the exact same government, says you're not American enough to be able to work here. So it's this profound contradiction. So then, she does not let that stop her. She keeps publishing, keeps researching. She finished her Ph.D. and decided that she's gonna just apply everywhere and see where she could find opportunities.
And unsurprisingly, she gets the interviews at, you know, Yale, Stanford, Harvard and starts talking to them. And she gets to the interview process, and they all get to the same point. And there's like a question on a lot of these employment questionnaires that asks do you intend do you need to be sponsored for employment for your time with the lab or the company? And so she, of course has to disclose that, yes, I am going to need sponsorship. And so then, after that like none of them called her back. And that's just because it's so much work. It's a ton of administrative and bureaucratic work for a lab to sponsor someone for their employment and eventually permanent residence. And so my sister realizes that she needs to pivot from academia into private industry, where there is more tolerance for just throwing money at problems like this like we will sponsor this person and get them through. So that's what she does. She receives these opportunities at startup labs in Cambridge, which is like the biotech capital of the country.
And that's where she lands. And that's where she is right now. And she's doing really cool work in biotech in Cambridge, and just got her green card last year. And that was a result of me filing a petition for her to get her green card through like our familiar relationship through my parents. And what's crazy about the story, and this is sort of my favorite way of framing the issue, is it took so long for my sister to be eligible for her green card that I had enough time, from the age of a year and a half to grow up, go to college, learn immigration law, go to law school, file her petition, and then get her green card. And I'm 30 years old now. So that's how long it took my entire life to naturalize my sister. And that's why my life's work is an immigration and asylum because she's only one of millions, this millions of niches. And we're the ones who made it and weren't even the ones who are fleeing persecution and violence. We came under the most ostensibly like harmless situations, you know, we weren't even scared for our lives. And we still barely made it 30 years later. And so, I realized that so much of what I need to do in this space, is to advocate for people even more oppressed than us. And so that's how I became specialized in immigration and asylum issues and representing these families at the border, and representing unaccompanied kids, and adults seeking asylum for all across the world. So that's how I got just deeply rooted in this issue and will probably be in this space for all of my career.
Wow. And I mean, the next couple of questions, I was just asking what life was like, you know, as an undocumented student for you, but I think your sister's story kind of highlights how one resilient and persistent you must be in this system that is inherently broken. But also, you have these arbitrary definitions of what's extraordinary. And how does one I'm really curious as to who to them would count as extraordinary. She's literally working with like space alien bacteria like I don't understand.
It's interesting you say that Taylor, because they explain in their response letter, which I still have, for what things they would constitute me extraordinary enough. And one of the examples is a Nobel Prize. And it's just so bizarre, because one, that's not really a helpful indicator for extraordinary ability, because there are countless people who are extraordinary without getting the Nobel Prize. And I think the other thing that that highlights is the ignorance of the field offices and trying to figure out what is extraordinary, like, they can't really conceive of what is extraordinary like outside of these, like very obvious examples. These famous examples, like the Nobel Prize, which of course is like not a useful proxy for someone's potential inability, because it's such a narrow slice of like all people in the given field. But some other examples of how we can really affect life as a young person, or as a student. I mean, they're, they're everywhere. So examples are things like field trips.
It's stressful and scary to go on field trips if you're a kid when you're undocumented. Because if ever anybody asks you about, like, where you live, or where your parents are, or like, if you have an ID or something, you must be careful about how you answer those questions. Sometimes you can't even travel for field trips if they involve flying, which I couldn't do for different field trips and conferences when I was in school. But my classmates could, because they could fly, and I couldn't. The biggest piece of it, one of the biggest pieces, well, first let me say this. There's a profound existential and mental health impact on a person when they're otherized their entire life. And they're told that they're an alien, or they are told to, quote unquote, get in line. Or they're told that we're the reason for people's economic problems. Or that we should learn English or go back to where we came from. And, you know, it's hard to overstate the effect that can have on people. So that's a profound social and mental health impact on this community where we need to think find ways to undo that damage. But I won't linger too much on that point because we could spend all day on it. I'll focus on one like the concrete examples.
The concrete example is financial aid for college. That's one of the biggest problems. If you can't get financial aid for college, then it's very easy to realize why so many undocumented people just don't make it to college. We can't. We can't afford it. I got very lucky because I've had the way it worked out 16 years later, after I got my green card. That was right before I turned 18. So that was around the time I was applying to college anyway. So, I got extremely lucky for by becoming eligible for merit-based aid, because I had a social and because I had a green card. But most undocumented students are never that lucky. So that's another example. Another interesting one is when I was in high school, I wanted to participate in this career tech class where I could you know go to this career tech program for half the day and stay in my high school program for half the day. And the programmer wants to get into was about cybersecurity. And like just computer stuff and like IT. I was just curious about learning it. But the tricky thing is because that was a cybersecurity program, they actually wanted to run background checks on his families to make sure we were going to like abuse that software. And of course, when I found this out, I had to drop out of the program because I couldn't be subject to a background check.
There's lots of random ways you wouldn't necessarily think of that disqualify undocumented kids from doing things all their peers can do. And it was because of this and because of seeing what my sister went through the after I graduated from OU in Oklahoma. Before law school, I spent a couple of years in Oklahoma starting a nonprofit called Aspiring Americans to help other undocumented students figure out how to get there, like what were the resources that people just didn't know about but could help them. And so, when DACA came out, that solved a lot of these problems, getting them eligible for a social and employment and a driver's license. So, I want to stay in Oklahoma for a couple years to help build these bridges before I left. And so working with these students was some of my favorite experiences I've ever had. But to your point, Taylor, because these kids are so persistent. And they're just so fun to work with. And they're, like really dedicated.
But one of the most common responses I get to my story or my students’ stories, is, “Oh, that's so inspirational. Congratulations. Good for you. That's so inspiring.” And for a long time, I really liked that. I thought that was nice and encouraging. But then I realized, that really misses the point. That's not supposed to be this way. Someone's reaction to the story should be less about it being oh, that's inspirational, good for you. More people should be as persistent as you. The reaction should be, that shouldn't happen. You shouldn't have to be super heroically capable and competent and persistent and indefatigable to succeed. And to be deserving of treatment as a human being. You shouldn't have to be like a martyr for your people, or a poster child or a model minority to be allowed to make it this far. And so, I really tried to educate people in that way that when someone says, oh, that's inspirational, I say kind of. T hat's also depressing. And it's more reason to completely redo the system.
Yeah. And I kind of want to take a moment to kind of just because I'm personally really interested in psychology as a psychology major. I know you said you don't want to dwell on it too long. But really thinking about the mental toll this takes on students of this pressure to be some of the best of the best to be eligible for merit-based aid, and also having to constantly kind of have this pressure of looking over your shoulder. And also this otherization and exclusion from things like field trips and normal like school student activities, how growing up how did you and your sister kind of explain to your friends your situation of why you couldn't do certain things or did you explain that? But also, how did you go about finding these resources when, you know, you kind of paved the path for a lot of other students before you started your Aspiring Americans? Like how did you start this and what was that like for you?
Yeah, very important question. For a long time, for most of our lives, we just didn't tell anybody. As much as we wanted to be able to, you know, find comfort or commiseration with our friends or our peers. And that was outweighed by fear that somebody would just say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or somebody would turn us in, and we would get deported. And so for a lot of us, we just didn't say anything. In some communities, there are enough of like an aggregate of undocumented people that people will often you know, share their status with other people like there are some parts of South Oklahoma City where there's just a critical mass of Latino and Hispanic people that when I was working with students there, they're all actually more open than I was about them being undocumented, because they knew that they were likely going to find other students like them, and to be able to work together and commiserate.
But for me, I didn't feel that in my school, that I could be open about it, and that I could share it. And so when I had to explain to people, I can't do this, because of this reason, or that reason, I really had to make stuff up. And that was frustrating. And a lot of kids wouldn't understand that. And I think that would create more distance between me and them. That, you know, why is Akash not doing these activities like everybody else's. So often say, that's because we can't afford it or because we're busy more, because I have to, like help my parents or something.
And so, after a while making so many of those excuses, kids just want to spend less time with you, because you're not participating in stuff like they ar. And adds this extra layer of you otherizing you and alienating you, because you're you can't really tell your peers where you're going through. And so, when eventually I did try to tell my school counselor that I wasn't documented, and like I need help figuring this stuff out. She was not helpful at all. And part of it, I don't quite blame her because, like, if she wasn't really trained in this like how would she know how to help? And if the school system didn't support her, and like, let her know like listen you're gonna have this kind of student, and this is what they're going through. And this is how you should help them. Then of course, it makes sense, she wasn't going to be helpful. But what I do hold against her, is when I told her she didn't then try to proactively like figure out how to help me. That was frustrating as I would have hoped that once she realized that there are kids like us in the school, that she might try to go out of her way to help us or figure out what the answers were. And she just never did.
I had to figure out myself. And that's why I realized I had to go back and figure out how to build a bridge of these resources that could be sustainable before I left the state in good conscience to go to law school, and like wherever else. And then I know, there were a couple of the questions in the in the in the chat here. The answer is yes. And throughout that limbo period while we were waiting for our green card, were we at risk of deportation? And the answer is yes. We were what the statute would refer as removable aliens. And so if ever we were pulled over for a traffic violation even, and they saw our information, then we would have been deportable.
So that was a huge factor and just such, you know, threat hanging over our lives every single day. And it's a big reason why my dad is an extremely careful driver. Because some of you may already know this, but the most common way in which immigrants end up in detention, or in the criminal justice system, or in the immigration system is being picked up in a traffic stop. It's bullshit because often that's a pretext and racial profiling. And it's just a reason to pull people over and run their information. And there's so many people and so many my own students who have been pulled up into the system because there were "speeding" or like "roll a stop sign."
And we'll have like, a dysfunctional like taillights. And that is the reason they got into deportation proceedings, which is bullshit. So that'd be we're constant fear. And I didn't realize until later why my dad was such an impeccable, perfect driver. I often wondered, how does my dad never gotten a speeding ticket in like, 30 years? That's amazing. And then I realized, oh, it's out of necessity. He had to be a perfect driver, because our lives literally dependent on it. And I see, there's another question here, like what supports are in place at schools for students who are undocumented? This definitely varies. So there were, for example, in public schools, at least where I was in Oklahoma, there's not that much support. But there were some charter schools where they have like a really high percentage of undocumented students and they know that and they do dedicate a lot of resources to those students. And those are some of the schools I also work with a lot. And so it just really varies by school. Some schools have a better, you know, thumb on the pulse of that problem than others unless they do they really go out of their way to help those kids. How can educators support students who are undocumented? I think the best thing is, there's a few things. One of the things we did in Oklahoma, as part of the nonprofit is we did professional development educators across the state, and you know, teach them how to work with the kids. And one of the things we did was the way you communicate and use your words really matters.
So you know, teaching them that the word alien is not a useful word. And it's an offensive word. And just using words like immigrant and non-citizen, and really helping do like cultural trainings to make them realize this isn't just something that affects Latin American people, or Mexican people. That affects everybody. That you're gonna have undocumented kids in your classroom from different parts of Africa, from parts of Asia, from the Middle East, and from South America. They're gonna be from everywhere. And so don't assume that undocumented just means Hispanic. And that was interesting lesson to teach people because I mentioned this in the TED talk, but when I first came out as undocumented to people, one of the very first responses anybody ever said to me when I said, you know, I'm undocumented, my friend said, but you're not Mexican.
So that's when I realized people really don't get it, they have no idea of what this immigration problem really is. And does that one of the things we would teach teachers, is if you have these kids who have this problem, and you don't know, like how to help them, like reach out to someone who does, and so just giving them more information, giving them a list of contacts, and like the email addresses and the phone numbers that can be referring kids to. That way, at least, even if you can't help you've given like the student something to do to figure out and not just sort of given them a dead end response. And so making sure that we always enable teachers to say, I don't know how to help you, but and then having something to be able to guide them so that there's not just a dead end for them was really important.
Yeah, and kind of taking some steps back, can you explain more about your work with Aspiring Americans? I really want to spend more time like getting to know exactly what you did and if you have one or two stories that really stick with you still?
Yeah, so we set out to have three main program areas. One was professional development, which I think was one of the most important things we could do. Because we would really travel to every school we could get to, and to some college campuses to just tell teachers, administrators, counselors, recruiters, admissions officers, you know, what these kids are going through and how to change their policies to help them. And that I think was very effective. And the second program area was doing pro bono immigration clinics with attorneys who would help screen these kids to find out they're eligible for DACA, help them apply or help them renew.
The third piece was raising our own money for scholarships. So those are the three main things that we did. And of course, you know, the, the stories we hear are always those kinds of stories that we think of as very inspiring all of overcoming all these different odds. And things really becoming possible when someone just believes them for the first time. Or that for the very first time they become eligible for something, and they're given that chance to be able to afford to go to college. And so, you know, one example is that there are so many, let me think. So there is one student who's one of the very, very first students we ever worked with. Her name is Zaira. And so we helped and I know I can say her name, because we've done stories in the press about her in Oklahoma. So she was publicly one of our favorite students. And so she was very much actually reminded me of my sister, because she was also dedicated to microbiology. And I really wanted to become a scientist.
Her story stands out in my mind, because she wanted to go to this university, and had her heart set on it. But the university had no idea how to like to classify her, had no idea how to enroll her, and process her for financial aid. So, all I had to do was pick up the phone, I called the university, and I explained the situation. I said, well, she's undocumented, but she's going to be eligible for these kinds of benefits and has DACA. So you can enroll her as an in state student. She's lived in Oklahoma for many years. She has a valid social, and you can make her eligible for merit based and need based aid. And so we were then also able to negotiate with the university to give her more money, because she was not eligible for all these other things that students would be eligible for normally, so to make up for that give her money from this other pot of funding that the university has. And that's what made it possible for her to go to college as us educating these colleges of how to process these students how to enroll them, how to make them eligible for financial aid. And that was an important lesson was a lot of these colleges want to help. They want they want to be there for the kids but they just don't know how to do it. And so that story stands out in my mind because the obstacle that existed for Zaira was almost barely an obstacle at all. It was just a knowledge gap on the part of the college. They wanted to help but they don't know how.
One of my other examples is a student who became a good friend of mine, Jowanza. He was the very first student we had ever helped get his green card. And he's just fucking brilliant. He builds and flies planes, and now he works for Gulfstream and Atlanta. And recently was like Twitter, his company posted that he had broken some record for a certain speed a certain altitude for an aircraft he helped build. And so like these are the kinds of like students we're helping, like these are students who just want to do cool things, you know, and have skills to contribute. But I should also stop on that point to say, that also doesn't really matter. It shouldn't matter if you have something to contribute, per se. It shouldn't matter if you're a valedictorian, like we hear about these viral stories all the time. You know, oh, this like immigrant became valedictorian. This is exactly what we should support them. No, we should support them because they're people.
We should support them regardless of what their contributions or potential are going to be. And so again, it's tricky because I want to talk about the students who are very inspiring and memorable and brilliant. But also do not want to perpetuate the idea that we only want to support immigrants because they are exceptional. And so I'm still trying to learn about really the best way to talk about my students without perpetuating that divide that which can be classist and elitist, and ableist. And so I'm also still learning, you know, how best to do that.
Yeah. And then Kayla asked, since coming out as undocumented is extremely risky, how are you able to kind of reach a lot of the students that you helped in Aspiring Americans? How did you advertise and connect with them?
Very good question. There were two ways we had to do that. Because I was acutely aware of the fact that I was going to have to, if I couldn't get them to come to me, I was gonna must go to them. So that's what I did. I would make appointments to go through all these schools and just ask the teachers could I have like 10 minutes of your class time, just introduce myself. That's the very first thing I would do was to tell a version of the story to them to make sure they knew that I was one of them. That if they're going to talk to me and let me help them that they're going to be safe because I was going through this and my sister was also going through it. So that's how that's the first way I try to get them to connect with me and trust me was to tell them that I'm in the trenches with them, that I get what it's like. And that helped encourage them to reach out to me.
Second thing I did was I really want to avoid reinventing the wheel. And so if there were other community organizations that I knew that people trusted and liked then I partnered with them. And that was very helpful as well. So there was an organization called LCDA, the Latino Community Development Agency. And then there's also DREAM Act Oklahoma, which was the, you know, the state chapter for the United We Dream national organization. So, I would rely on these local organizations people already knew and trusted and say that I'm working with them. And they knew who I am, and I know who they are so I'm a trusted person. I'm not, you know, going to get you in trouble. I know what I'm doing. I've been through this before. And so, you know, there's those two things, making it clear that I've been through it myself and to associate myself with familiar entities like really helped get them to trust me.
And then, okay, taking it all the way back, I really want to get a better idea of a lot of the systemic barriers that students have faced and, like not only students even like other undocumented individuals, what are some of the barriers you face and why is there such a backlog? I mean, we speak about how you kind of have to be perfect and even sometimes that's not even enough, in order to get be granted the opportunity to become a citizen. So what, like, can you just explain to me why these issues exist and where do these issues lie?
Yeah, that's a fantastic question. This, I think, is one of the things I wish we actually taught in school but it's not something I really became aware of until I read about it myself and got to college and really got to more senior levels of education. But really, this something we should be teaching in high school, because this goes back to the way the country was founded and the way the country's laws evolved in the, in the 20th century. And in some ways, I'm never sure where to begin, but I'll simplify it. So it shouldn't be surprising to people that we treat immigrants this way. Because we've had the Japanese internment camps. We've had the Chinese Exclusion Act.
We've had a Supreme Court case adjudicate whether an Indian person can count as a white person or not. And of course, even going as far back as slavery. Just everything that this country has done, has based on the color of our skin, and deciding who want to exclude or include based solely on that. And so I think for a lot of people reminding them that you shouldn't be surprised this is bad. Like please please do not be surprised because if you are surprised and you have not been paying attention or you're just really privileged. Some concrete reasons for why things are this way is this so the country used to have quotas, like strict immigration quotas, like X number of people come from certain countries every year. Technically, those quotas don't exist anymore. However, another version of quotas still does. And that's the thing people don't realize is there is a rule in our statute that says the US cannot accept above, something like it's a very low percent, like all immigration petitions, let's say there's like a million a lot in each year. I don't remember how many it is. And the rule is, no single country can be allotted more than like 5% of all available visas for that year. That's a de facto quota. And that is going to automatically impact disproportionately dense populations, which all happen to be populations of color, because countries that are densely populated that are more likely to be people of color. And so already, you've created a disadvantage for everybody who's not European to migrate here.
And this is I'll give you a couple of fantastic examples of this. So my wait time to naturalize was or to even get my green card was 16 years, which is actually very good, comparatively, because if you were to look at someone from Mexico, who was filing the exact same visa category, under the exact same circumstances, the wait time for that person would be 22 years. And there's no reason for that other than the country that they're from. That's it. The longest wait time for anybody in the world is those from the Philippines. It is 29 years. And so what is that other than a de facto quota system, that you are punishing the densely populated countries of color? I'm saying that this arbitrary percentage sounds fair, it's obviously not. That's one example where we have this backlog issue. The other issue is much simpler. And it is that somehow, we just refuse to employ enough people in the system to be able to adjudicate petitions faster. If we could just quadruple the size of USCIS, which is the one that reviews petitions, we obviously get to them faster, and it escapes me why we can never decide to do that.
Another reason why we have severe backlogs in the asylum process is also similar. We don't have enough judges and we refuse to fund the increase in judges. We also decide to criminalize so many things that we just throw immigrants into the system, which causes backlogs as well. There is also the issue of I'll give an example of like on the economic side. So there are even strict quotas for employment based visas, which are also very counterproductive. So like, every year, there's something like, what is it not even like 100,000 visas for certain types of like, really highly skilled work areas. That quota gets filled up in like April. So, for the rest of the entire calendar year, you have all of these other visas being filed, that get rolled up into the backlog end of the next year, and then it cascades over and over and over again. So now you're saying, now we'll take some skilled workers, but we are gonna put a cap on it. And people say, well, that makes sense because if we don't have jobs for them, there's no point in letting them come here. But the problem is, people don't realize we have jobs for them. We have job openings for them and are not increasing the caps.
A perfect example was the Great Recession in like 2013 2014, where we had historic unemployment rates. And we had at the very beginning of the year, and like March and April, the caps will be maxed out. We couldn't allow any more skilled workers in the US. But we still had record numbers of job openings across all these big companies like Simon's and Microsoft and Google. And people were like, we have the supply of immigrant labor that wants to be here. And we have these job openings in the in the tech industry, and in engineering and medicine and nursing. Why aren't we just increasing the caps at the very least the employment based petitions. And so that's another concrete fix that we can be making to be filling jobs that need to be filled, and employing immigrants who like want a better life here. And for lots of political and racially embedded reasons, we will probably never see those solutions happen.
We're coming up on the hour, but I do want to kind of pivot more towards looking at access and just what life is like once you kind of arrive in the country. And so I think it was last summer we had an opportunity to speak with Casa Juan Diego, which is a hospitality center for immigrant families in Houston. And they were able to kind of give us some insight of the immediate, like, what happens once you arrive, but we didn't really have like an insight into what the legal process is like throughout. So can you kind of outline what the typical process might be like for someone who arrives and is seeking asylum, or, you know, has an overstayed visa or something like that. And I also want to throw in, what is it like, especially if you need health care services because that adds in a whole other level of complication.
Yeah. Okay, let's do this. Let's break it up into a few categories. So let's start with the category of mine. So something like 42% of all people in the US who are undocumented are undocumented the same way that I was, which was the overstayed originally, like valid visas. So people don't realize that's not like we all snuck over here. And if you did sneak over here, no judgment, like you gotta get here if you're fleeing violence and persecution and poverty, like, if you snuck over here, that's fine. But for some people, we were able to fly here with visitor visas. And for a lot of us, we were unable to get back to where we came from while we're waiting for the backlogs to clear and so we were stuck here.
Almost half of all undocumented people are visa overstays. And so for those people they are screwed unless they are able to adjust their status through someone else who is a US citizen and can sponsor them. And even then, for them the process is very complicated, because normally if you've already been here, unlawfully, and you don't have someone who can sponsor you, like your parents or your siblings, then the only best bet is to get married or to get employment sponsorship. The issue is for all those people, if you do go through what's called consular processing, even when that happens, which means you have to leave the country and then come back. But then, of course, that triggers the 10-year ban. So then you have to apply for what's called the extraordinary hardship waiver or the exceptional hardship waiver, which says, well, I shouldn't have to leave and go through consular processing, because my departure and ban would create a hardship.
The problem is the rule is that the hardship needs to happen on someone who's a US citizen and someone who is related to you. So is that enough, that it would create a hardship on your kids or your spouse, it must be your kids or your spouse who are themselves US citizens, otherwise, it doesn't count as a hardship, because apparently only citizens or people. So that's one slice of the population that is going to go through it like a tough process. The only reason when my sister was able to avoid that is a very, very, like narrow, narrow statute that allowed her to not have to do that, because of the way my dad filed his petition by a certain date, just by happenstance, and was allowed to not have to do that. And so like these are just like random, idiosyncratic parts of the law that either you fit into or you don't. A lot of it is just luck. Another slice of people would be those who, let's say, never had visitor visas to begin with and so they crossed the border without inspection. And that's the term for those who can elude border patrol and just come in and never got any documentation at the border.
So for them they were totally always undocumented, and never had proof that they came through a port of entry. They're even more screwed. Because if you came without inspection, really, the only way you're going to be allowed to stay is to show that if you go back to your country, you'll be persecuted. The problem for those is there's a time limit. You have to apply within a year of your arrival. But that's not gonna be possible unless you get an attorney and you get an attorney who you can afford to pay, or there's enough pro bono capacity in the pro bono network for someone be able to take your case and file it within a year. And so for those people, we try to help as many as possible. But we have such little capacity in our pro bono network, we just can't get them all.
And so for those people, they'll be undocumented for decades. But in the meantime, something to remember is that we're all still working. We're also paying taxes. We're all still paying Social Security while still paying federal state, local county sales tax property tax. We're all still you know, contributing, which I mentioned, because there are many people in the conversation who claim that we don't, and that somehow that means we shouldn't be allowed to access benefits. That's a very important point, though, is a very common myth is that somehow undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes, but I don't know where that myth came from, but it's obviously not true.
Another slice of the population would be those who come to the border and are specifically those who are unaccompanied children and that's my area of expertise right now. And we define unaccompanied child or UC as someone who is under 18 as someone who has no legal status at all, and they did not travel with a parent or a guardian. So what happens is ICE will apprehend them and they are allowed 72 hours to refer them to our custody. And then we will receive them, and we will triage. We have different kinds of placements for kids. We have regular shelters. We have long term foster care. We've got residential treatment care facilities. We've got group homes, individual foster homes. We have all kinds of different programs under HHS's authority. The reason is because in 2002 the Homeland Security Act gave the Department of Health and Human Services jurisdiction over all immigrant kids, because the logic was that first and foremost HHS is a human welfare agency. And if you're going to give the authority of care and custody of kids to anyone, it should be HHS although they happen to not be citizens.
So, we got to take over the jurisdiction of all immigrant kids because that's what we do best. A lot of what the Administration for Children and Families does is in children's benefits, and like foster care, and like parent's benefits and stuff. And so we created ORR which sits within ACF, the Administration for Children and Families to have mandate over these kids because we are a child welfare agency. Like that is what we are specialized to do. And so that's what our network of providers is all our network of, you know, this foster care organizations, these group homes, the shelters, they're all trained to specialize in child welfare. And so while they are in our care and custody, the kids will get triaged to this system, and we find out where the best placement for them. And in the meantime, we identify their sponsors. Almost always the kids who come here, even though they didn't come with the parent or guardian, they know someone here. And usually it's a sibling, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, or the parent is already here. So we'll help them find that sponsor and reunite them. That's a huge part of what ORR does is reuniting kids with their families once they get here. Another big piece of what we do is we connect them with attorneys while they're with us so that after we've released them to the sponsor, they could connect it to a pro bono attorney who can help them file for asylum, or help them file for other types of relief, like a special immigrant juvenile status, based on them having been abandoned or neglected.
There's a huge legal apparatus that we have set up to connect all of these kids to attorneys to make sure that once they come through us and get processed through our care and custody, and we release them or discharge them to their sponsors, they will have attorneys to adjust their status. So there's a pretty robust system in place for that. In the past 15 or 16 months, we've processed 175,000 Kids, which is a record by many orders of magnitude. And we're going to continue to see equating numbers like that. I'll give you a fourth example of a category of people as a specific example for the healthcare and access issue. So last year, as everyone remembers, we had the collapse of the Afghan government. So after that, we had to do the mass Afghan evacuation and absorbed about 100,000 Afghans. And a lot of them were kids but most of them are family units and adults. And of course, the biggest problem was resettling them here and giving them access to benefits. And this is difficult, because we didn't have enough time to plan and prepare. And so one of the biggest problems for access for these populations was just capacity. We just didn't have capacity for a lot of these families. And so there's just long wait times to get them the care that they need. The other issue was language and cultural competency.
But it took us a while to get enough of a network, culturally competent, linguistically competent trauma informed people in our network to provide access to like critically needed health care services. And so we have a network of providers we work with but we can only do so much if we only have X number of hospitals, X number of clinics, and X number of partners. And we just keep absorbing more and more refugees every year but we don't get the same commensurate amount of money to build out these provider networks. So one of the biggest problems in terms of access is mental health. A lot of these kids are severely traumatized. And so we have our what's called our PRS, our post release services providers that will make sure that once the kids are released into the communities with the sponsors, they'll follow up and call them and say how's school going? How's your health? How's your housing? Are you hungry? Do you feel safe in your home? And so, we make sure providers have referrals to clinicians to therapists to licensed social workers. And so we have that infrastructure in place to really to make sure those dots are connected, and those lines of connections exist. But again, capacity is the biggest problem. We're just straining the capacity beyond its limit and it's not sustainable. And so at some point, the system's going to break or Congress is going to have to give us the money we need to hire, you know, quadruple the amount of people on the ground to serve these kids.
Yeah and you've answered pretty much a lot of the questions that I had for you. But one thing that I picked up on, you know, your discussion just now, but also your TED talk, you spoke a lot about the importance of grassroots community work and that's kind of, you know, your bread and butter of what you started with. And you know something that I have personally been really passionate about looking at Houston community clinics and seeing how sometimes when there's gaps in the law or gaps in government, these communities aren’t, or these community clinics and organizations are able to fill in those. So how have your views evolved now that you work in the government of the importance of community organizations and where do you see this importance?
A very important question. I think a really important philosophy that we have at ORR is we are experts in our part of the system, and we are very good at what we do. And likewise, we know that our partners are very good at what they do. So we're going to trust a lot of our community partners to do what they do best and not reinvent the wheel and not get in their way. I think it was important lesson to see the government being good at just not getting in the way. We have hundreds of good partners on the ground that are extremely good at what they do. And we will give them the grant money they need to do their jobs. And we have like we have very positive relationships with us with our grantees and our contractors. So let them do what they need to do. Because we know they're the experts. They're the clinicians. They're the social workers. They're the doctors on the ground.
So I think one thing I learned was the importance of getting out of the way. If you know somebody has this special skill set and they can do the job, let them do it. The other thing I realized was being receptive to their feedback. So they tell you, we can do our job better if you do X, or have you considered X? Being really receptive to that feedback, and really making use of advisory councils that we have or stakeholder forums or phone calls with our partners' providers. Really having this healthy feedback loop to sort of answer the question of helped me help you, it was really important to see us have the conversation.
So for example, every month, we have a standing call with all of our providers and there's something like you know, over 300 people on this phone call every month. And we give them updates, we give them information. And we take questions, and we just make sure this is a very active conversation between us and the grantees we rely on to help you know, fulfill our mandate, which is child welfare. And so I think when it comes to community organizing and community resources, a lot of it is just trust, like trust and the people we pay to do their jobs well. And then not getting in their way. And I'm a firm believer in if we're going to rely on community partners, and not micromanaging them, and let them do what they do best, but being receptive to their feedback when they give us feedback.
And can you kind of give us more detail of what these community partners are? So where are some of the fields that they work in? I know you mentioned like foster care, physician, social work. Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah so examples will be we will transfer kids to residential childcare setting where they could spend a few weeks before they get released to the sponsors once you've identified them and cleared the background checks. Or sometimes they'll take months because we haven't found the sponsor yet. In the meantime, we rely on our community partners to provide really high standards of care for these kids. So for example, for almost all these programs, they are required to maintain six hours of school instruction every day. So they get to be in school most of the day. So we rely heavily on teachers and the state level boards of education to certify the curriculum to make sure that after the kids are done their credits do transfer that they haven't lost that time. We relied heavily on our networks with food contractors, for example, when Afghans came in, and we needed to halal food. That was kind of tricky. We had to find halal food that fast and that quantity, but we were able to find our local food providers and contractors are very, very good at finding each other. Because they're the ones who live in those communities. They're the ones who live there every day.
So they knew exactly what to call and get that food immediately. That was helpful. We rely on a really active network of pediatricians and clinicians who specialize in this work. And they're very, very good and passionate about what they do and being embedded on site in these residential childcare settings and being available 24/7. We also have the we also have a lot of a big part of the network relies on youth care workers. So these are basically child care experts who have experience working in childcare settings to help us just look out for the kids and kind of babysit. You know, make sure they're safe, make sure we have what's called line of sight supervision of all kids at all times. And so those are the kinds of sorts of expertise and capacity we rely on from people who are close to population and close to that expertise.
Okay, so I'm going to start wrapping up does anyone have any other questions?
SABARIAH BINTE MOHAMED HUSSIN
Yeah, I just have one. I mean, it's quite a lot really sophisticated, complicated, I will say layers of layers of different. I don't know, process. But solutions is very minimal. But I just wonder in all of these, I've not heard anything about religious communities coming forward. Why do you think religion, I mean, has religion played a role in any way? Perhaps you could expand on that?
Yeah, that's a good question. So I think for a long time, ORR has so our programs do provide wherever possible these religious services and accommodations and the most common religious accommodation is for these kids being Catholic. And that's been really easy, or being Christian. And again, it's been easy to find those accommodations to bring in, you know, to bring in priests to bring in other people to lead worship, and to provide Bibles and to provide, you know, chapel time. That's been very easy. What was challenging, and this will not surprise people, is when we had the mass Afghan evacuation, really making sure we partner with our local mosques, and having partnerships with local Imams. And making sure that we had in these physical spaces places for people to do their daily prayers five times a day and getting prayer rugs and having sufficient spaces for that. That was that was challenging. And I think for us, the best way we were able to solve that problem is kind of again, asking our partners for help. So we asked the mosques to help us get Qurans.
We asked the mosques to help us get prayer rugs. And we asked them to help us how do we set up these spaces to make them safe and conducive to worship for this Muslim population. And that was difficult only because we don't have to do that before. Most of our population was Latin American or South American. We didn't really have a huge influx from the Middle East like that before. And so religious services were a big part of what we needed to learn to do. I visited one of our programs in Michigan. And I saw a really great example of how this worked. We had a local teacher in Michigan there who was Muslim who would come to the campus where these kids were at once a week and lead them in activities and prayer and conversation. And the kids really liked it. They liked it they saw someone who looked like them spend time with them. And that was really important for their mental health. And for them to get through this time of uncertainty and trauma that they saw someone who looked like them who spoke their language, and who understood their culture and their religion.
And so when it came to those kinds of questions is how do we serve these kids needs, we again thought there's no need to reinvent the wheel. Just ask people who know how to do it. We will ask the imams in the mosques, and they're more than happy to do it. People want to help. So the religion part can be challenging. It is challenging, but the best part about it that's encouraging is I mean, my god, people are eager to help. People are always willing to help if we can find them and just ask them. So that's been really encouraging is that people are just so passionate and willing to help.
LAN A. LI
This has been so amazing. Thank you so much Akash. And I think this really shows the complexity of the bigger situation and you've been able to help us get a sense of the complexities at different scales at the personal scale at the bureaucratic scale. And then also, what's happened before, and what may not happen in the future but what might be possible in terms of future collaborations and future partnerships, like different partners on the ground, and potentially trying to expand the number of people who are working in this field. So you have a really hard job.
It's a dream job but it's also it is a hard job. But I mean, as hard as it is up here working on the policies and the regulations, I'm sure my job is not as hard as those working on the ground doing the direct services being the direct providers. Because I know the burnout level on the ground is really severe right now. The ones who are working with the kids, you know, 12 hours a day. So it's not lost on me. My job is, you know, pretty hard, like thinking about these like high level questions about process improvements and policy reforms. But I think it's a different thing altogether to really be in the trenches with these kids. And so I am so grateful that we have as big of a workforce as we do, working with these families.