Pratishtha Khanna

Maryland

Pratishtha Khanna

1. How old were you when you came to the United States? Tell me a little about when you first realized that you were undocumented and what that meant for you.

I was ten and a half years old when I first came to the U.S. When I missed my family in India, my father would tell me that once we got ‘approved’, we could go visit them. But he never explained the details—that we couldn’t go because we didn’t have papers to return to the U.S. I knew we weren’t U.S. citizens, but I did not fully understand our status or its limitations. I didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘undocumented’, and didn’t realize that it meant we didn’t have immigration status.

My father initially came to the U.S. by himself, entering on a tourist visa while searching for work. Once he found an employer who began the process of applying for my father’s visa, my mother, brother, and I came to the U.S. to join him. After we arrived, my father’s employer told him that there had been a delay on his application due to a technicality. My father’s tourist visa expired while he was waiting for his employment visa: he ‘overstayed’ eight days. As a result, he was ineligible for a work visa and his employer could not complete the petition. My father was very disappointed, but we decided to stay because we had already shifted our whole lives to be in the U.S. My parents were sure that they could straighten everything out. Ultimately, those eight days stood between my family having immigration papers in the U.S. and living a life of perpetual uncertainty as undocumented individuals.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I realized the true meaning of being undocumented. Like most teens, I was eager to apply for a driver’s permit, so I asked my parents for my passport, birth certificate and other identification documents. My parents explained that I was ineligible for a driver’s permit or license because we did not have the necessary identification or immigration status. I was crushed with disappointment and felt helpless. That’s when I started to wonder what other rites of passage I would have to forego because of my immigration status and the greater impact not having papers might have on my future.

2. What have been the biggest barriers for you in achieving your dreams because of your undocumented status? How has DACA changed that?

One of the biggest barriers I have faced because of my undocumented status was the college application process. Even the simplest pieces were challenges for me. For example, most students apply using the common application, which is a generic application you fill out once so that you can use it to apply to multiple schools. Since I didn’t have a Social Security number, I had to leave that space blank on the application, which prevented it from being processed. My only option was to complete paper applications for each school and submit an addendum explaining that I was undocumented. Not only was my application process more tedious than others, but I also had to explain my personal situation as an undocumented person to every school.

The limitations I faced by not having a Social Security number did not end there. I really wanted to attend University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), but felt like there was no point since I didn’t have a Social Security number. Around this time, my mother learned of Howard Community College (HCC) and set up a meeting for me with an academic advisor there. The advisor at HCC told me that while my grades were good, my undocumented status and financial situation might work against me and ‘push me to the back of the pile’ at schools like UMBC. In order to improve my chances of being accepted to UMBC, he suggested that I complete an Associate’s degree from community college, which would illustrate that I could handle college-level classes and thrive in a university setting. Fortunately, after completing my degree at HCC I was accepted by UMBC.

Throughout this process, I also had to worry about financial assistance. With two parents working low-paying jobs because of their immigration status, finding the resources to pay for courses at HCC and at UMBC has been a struggle. Many higher education scholarship programs are federally funded, which makes me ineligible because I don’t have a green card or citizenship. I have used every penny I have earned to pay off my school debts and even then, am always behind on my payments. Figuring out how to advance my studies and still make enough money to cover even a small portion of my classes is a constant source of anxiety. My dream is to attend medical school, but with all of these financial difficulties, it will be yet another big challenge.

However, I am so grateful to now have DACA status, which has given me the opportunity to work and develop a sense of self-worth. My Social Security number has given me a newfound sense of confidence. Before DACA, no matter how qualified I was, I could not earn a substantial wage or hold down a job due to circumstances beyond my control. Those limitations can really take a toll on one’s mental health. I now have a new sense of pride, knowing that I can work and help my parents.

3. What is your happiest or most vivid childhood memory?

My happiest memories are the ones with my extended family back in India. I miss being in a room surrounded by family with lots of commotion and laughter. I wish that we could travel and visit them. It is difficult being so far away and feeling so disconnected from my family.

4. Where do you see yourself in ten years? How would that change if you had status or citizenship?

In ten years, I hope to be a doctor practicing anesthesiology, and married with a family of my own. I hope that my children will not bear the scars of having a previously undocumented parent. I want my children to feel safe and have the potential to fulfill their dreams without limitations.

5. What is one thing that no one knows about you or your most marked characteristic?

I am a very quiet person, so I think many people see me as shy or reserved. However, when there an issue that I feel passionate about, I am very vocal, which sometimes catches people off guard. Since I started college and began studying women’s issues, I have become a bit of a feminist and want to make sure that my voice is heard. My friends often say that I am like the crisp noodle in a salad, offering a bit of spunk and flavor when least expected.

6. If you could ask one question of President Obama, what would it be?

I would tell him my story and ask if his was just as hard. I would ask for his advice, given that he is an African American man, I am an undocumented immigrant, and we have both faced serious civil rights challenges. I would want to know how he overcame his challenges and what advice he has for me.

7. What is your favorite quote?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi

8. Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself or your experience in the United States?

I want people to know that although I am an undocumented immigrant, America has been home to me my whole life. It is the place where I have been raised and educated. I am learning things and taking classes that I may never have taken or learned about in India: feminism, sexuality, gender roles, and identity. America has given me a new worldview. This is the only country in the world where you can ask questions and tell the government that they are wrong without being afraid of the consequences.