Ainee Athar


Ainee Athar

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

My story is complicated. We arrived in the U.S. from Pakistan when I was two years old, after I was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, Pakistani hospitals didn’t provide quality care for children with cancer. As a result, my aunt, an American citizen, arranged for me and my mom to come to the U.S. on a medical visa. I received medical treatment and recovered in the U.S., but relapsed when I was four. My mom and I decided to stay in the U.S. in order for me to receive another round of treatment.

During my treatment, my father was offered sponsorship for an employment visa in the U.S. My father and sister joined us in the U.S., and the company filed the application on behalf of my entire family. The application was underway when 9/11 happened, which resulted in a major delay in many immigration cases; we waited years and years to hear back. When we did, my father’s employment visa was “arbitrarily” denied.

We then applied for asylum based on religious persecution, specifically because of the widespread oppression of Ahmadi Muslims such as my family members in Pakistan. Based upon this history, Ahmadis are often recipients of asylum. Unfortunately, our case was denied by a Houston judge with a high rejection rate. At this point, I was attending the University of Texas-Austin (UT-Austin), so my family decided to stay and appeal our asylum case since we believed we had a good chance of winning.

In November 2010, my sophomore year at UT-Austin, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers raided our home in Houston and placed my parents in detention. Having my parents suddenly ripped from me was traumatizing. I was terrified for our family and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. That’s when I learned that our attorney never filed our appeal after my parents’ asylum case was denied; we were out of status. He lied and told us that he had filed the appeal, but when we confronted him and requested proof of the filing, he stopped communicating with us. Because our appeal wasn’t filed, an order of deportation was entered against us. I didn’t realize until that moment that we were undocumented.  We did everything we were supposed to do, but it wasn’t enough.

My parents were released from the detention center one month later, but were forced to wear ankle bracelets to monitor their movements for six months after their release. During this period my sister and I were monitored through ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). Through ISAP, we received random automated calls which, when not answered after three rings, alerted immigration officers who would then call demanding to know our whereabouts. Though we continued to attend school, it was very hard for me to engage in classes and feel like a normal student. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies and campus life knowing that my family could be torn apart at any moment.

After six months, my family was allowed to remain in the U.S. together until my sister and I finished school. I filed for DACA in April 2013, one month before graduation, and was granted DACA status in December 2013. Unfortunately, because I waited so much longer than the anticipated time to receive DACA, I had to turn down several job offers.

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

The biggest barriers for me have been pursuing academic and career opportunities. In high school, I wanted to attend college outside of Texas in order to have access to courses of study unavailable in the University of Texas system. Unfortunately, I didn’t qualify for financial aid because I didn’t have a green card or citizenship. I continued to face limitations at UT-Austin due to my status, including that I was excluded from a prestigious White House internship because it was only available to those with a green card or citizenship. Even during the process of applying for DACA, I was not given any information about the status of my application. During the eight months I waited for my DACA application to be approved, I had to give up countless job opportunities and internships because I was unsure of if or when my status would be granted. I was in perpetual limbo.

Having DACA status has definitely improved my situation. I have more independence: I can work, get a driver’s license, and I am able to live my life without fear. However, most government internships and jobs beyond entry-level require at least a green card, so my DACA status doesn’t make me eligible for those positions. DACA status also creates complications for mixed-status families like mine; my parents still face uncertainty. I am incredibly grateful for my DACA status, but often feel guilty about being able to stay in the U.S. I constantly worry that my parents will be deported and taken from me.

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

I was a very imaginative little kid, but also very thorough and detail-oriented. I remember planning out and orchestrating these very grand tea parties with a huge, fancy table spread. I lined up all of my dolls and stuffed animals as guests. Having tea parties was a big part of my childhood and provided a much-needed distraction from reality. As a child living with cancer and constantly in-between treatments, it offered me a space to escape to a magical world where everything was perfect and I was in control.

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

I don’t know where I will be in ten years. My DACA status may not be renewed, or my parents could be deported. All of these unknown factors make it hard for me to plan long-term.

If I am still in the U.S. in ten years, I would love to be a lobbyist on technology policy at a big firm. If I was granted citizenship, I could rise above an entry-level position, get the required security clearance, travel, and advance my career to be able to support my family. Being granted a green card or citizenship would also give me access to health care under the Affordable Health Care Act (ACA), which is currently not accessible to DACA recipients, but is critical for people with a history of life-threatening illness.

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

My most marked characteristic is that I am very articulate and am known for using sharp language to support my arguments. I am often chosen to be the spokesperson for my group. Whenever my friends have ideas in their heads and are unsure of how to frame an issue, they come to me and I help them work through it.

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

How can you support immigration reform but not place a moratorium on deportation or provide relief for people who are not DACAmented? What about their parents and families? What about the millions of people living in the U.S. who are not eligible for DACA? Why are you tearing families apart?

7. What is your favorite quote?

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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

I would like people to reflect on the concept of “belonging” and remember that many undocumented people have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives. They consider America their home. They have no other place to go—many can’t speak the language in their country of birth or no longer have family or other connections there. They continue to build community ties, contribute to the economy, and participate in American society. To tell people that they don’t belong in the U.S. is just not fair. There is no pathway to legalization for most undocumented immigrants; they are victims of an outdated system.