Here in the U.S., turning 21 is usually a reason to celebrate. But for 200,000 young people, adulthood catapults them into a bizarre legal limbo thanks to the Immigration Act of 1990.
That’s what happened to Eti Sinha and her twin sister, Eva. When they turned 21, they “aged out” of their parents’ family green card application.
"It's just the system that's just so messed up," said Eva.
"It's extremely difficult to process that, and keep having more and more obstacles in your way just to continue a life — in the only place I call home."
A family makes a bid for the American dream
The Sinha sisters were 7 years old when they moved with their mom from New Delhi, India, to San Francisco. They joined their dad, who was studying to transition out of his first career in the oil industry. Now he runs his own Silicon Valley consulting firm, and their mom is the director of admissions at a local university.
"We kind of had a pretty typical American upbringing. We learned how to ride our bikes in Golden Gate Park. We loved eating all the Asian food in San Francisco and [the] Bay Area," recalled Eva.
In time for middle school, the family moved to the suburbs: Fremont, in the East Bay, where they did all the things you do growing up in Fremont.
"We went to Centerville Middle School and Irvington High School," said Eti. "We hiked Mission Peak. During lunch breaks, because it was an open campus, we would rush over to 7-Eleven, grab some taquitos and rush back to campus before class started. Eva was president of the French club. I was secretary of the French club."
"We never really felt out of place," said Eva. "We had a lot of other friends who were immigrants, you know? Second- and third-generation immigrants — and I've had quite a few friends who were immigrants themselves, who came [to the U.S.] in elementary school along with their parents."
But there was a critical difference between them and most of their friends, a gulf that widened as they grew older: Eva and Eti’s presence in this country was conditional, set to expire when they turned 21.
As children, they had been dependents, riding on their father’s temporary visa status and, later, his family application for a green card, for the right to live and work in the U.S. more or less indefinitely. When they became adults, the federal government considered Eva and Eti foreign nationals.