It took Akash Patel 22 years to become a U.S. citizen. That’s how long it takes, he says, when you follow proper protocol—the current immigration system is that broken. “My parents, sister, and I came to the U.S. from London on visitor visas in 1993 and immediately applied for green cards,” recalls Patel. “We wanted to get in line and do things the right way. No one told us the waiting period was 16 years! We fell out of status, which is also what’s happened to 40 percent of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living here.” The struggles Patel’s family faced during more than a decade spent in limbo—especially those that arose when it came time for him and his sister Nisha to apply for college—inspired Patel to found Aspiring Americans, a nonprofit based in Oklahoma’s fifth congressional district. With an annual budget of $100,000, the organization provides free training to teachers and students on the resources available for undocumented immigrants who are seeking higher education and generates scholarships for students who don’t qualify for state or federal assistance because of their immigration status. So far, their curriculum has reached more than 2,000 Oklahoma educators, and the program has secured almost $200,000 for the class of 2016, resulting in more than 80 immigrant students going to college this year alone.
That’s when the fire grew in me to do something about the policies.
Immigration policy matters to Patel, because he’s spent his “whole life trying to become a citizen of the country that [he] grew up in.” “Throughout high school, I couldn’t get a job to help my parents or save up for college,” he says. “I couldn’t get a driver’s license to drive myself. I couldn’t travel abroad to study or attend educational conferences for my development. When I was in high school and wanted to study cybersecurity, I had to withdraw from this program I was in without telling anyone, because they said I’d have to submit to a background check. That experience—finding out that you can’t do something because the government could find you and kick you out—was traumatic.”
Patel was lucky. His green card came through just in time for him to apply for college. That meant he was eligible for financial aid and a host of other benefits that would allow him to further his education. But his sister Nisha, who was 23 at the time, had aged out of the application process—when a child is included on her parents’ visa petitions but turns 21 before the visas are approved—and was denied. “That’s when the fire grew in me to do something about the policies,” explains Patel.
By then Nisha was already enrolled at the University of Oklahoma. So when she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in microbiology, rather than getting a job and contributing to the economy, she was forced to spend the next four years doing volunteer work for no pay. “She was trying to stay active in her field,” explains Patel. “She worked on many interesting projects, and in one of them, she even identified a candidate gene for diabetes. Throughout this time, the university consistently offered to hire Nisha, but she was forced to decline due to her immigration status. Still, she continued to research and provide her skills for free hoping that relief would eventually become available.”
Nisha remains undocumented even today, but when President Obama instituted DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2012, which shields some young immigrants from deportation, she was able to return to school. “And the first thing she does after reenrolling at OU to get her PhD is discover this new species of bacteria in the human stomach,” Patel brags like a proud little brother. “She published her research and has presented it in Scotland, Chicago, Nashville, and Boston. Now she’s planning to go to India to share her research and learn new lab techniques to bring back to OU.” The family has since started a new petition for her, but the expected wait time is nine years. If Nisha is lucky, she’ll get her green card by the time she is 40, after having lived in the United States from the time she was six. “That means when she graduates with her PhD in microbiology two years from now, we will need to find her an alternative path to viable employment so that she can use her degree in the country that needs her skills but rejects her status,” says Patel.
But the problem that creates is then we have these students with high school diplomas who are ready to enter the workforce and learn a trade, or go into higher education, and they can’t.
Witnessing his bright, motivated, accomplished sister nearly fall through the cracks of the broken immigration system got Patel thinking about the other students it has also failed. “I wanted to know what was happening to the 92.5 percent of undocumented immigrants who could not pursue higher education and figure out ways that I could help them,” says Patel, who followed in his sister’s footsteps by enrolling at OU. For his senior honors thesis, he targeted undocumented students attending schools around his Oklahoma community and asked them to pinpoint the areas where they most needed help. “The overwhelming majority were being told they had no opportunities because they didn’t have a social security number to apply for college and financial aid,” says Patel. “We went back after DACA was passed and, even then, the teachers didn’t understand that it meant these students were now eligible to get a social security number, which would allow them to apply for scholarships and grants, get a job, and drive.”
When he graduated in 2014, Patel founded Aspiring Americans. “Under the current system, all students who live in the U.S. are entitled to a K-12 education regardless of their origin or race,” says Patel. “But the problem that creates is then we have these students with high school diplomas who are ready to enter the workforce and learn a trade, or go into higher education, and they can’t. There needs to be some kind of acknowledgement from the government that says, ‘Listen, we can’t give everybody green cards right now. But let’s at least allow them to help themselves, their families, and their communities by getting jobs or going to college and contributing to the economy.’”
Raising the money was easy. “I had Republicans giving money; I had Democrats give me money—helping the students just transcended the political environment entirely,” he says. With it, he and a small team of volunteers developed Oklahoma’s first professional curriculum for educators on how to help immigrant students, including information on how to apply for DACA, and how to get a job and apply for discretionary scholarships once you have DACA. “We’re directly connecting them with the contacts at each university who are uniquely familiar with enrolling undocumented students on that campus,” says Patel. “These are students who are dedicated and passionate about bettering themselves and their communities, so why not find a way to include them?”
This summer, Patel stepped down from his role as director of the organization that he founded (Tracey Medina, one of his long-time volunteers, replaced him) to finally start law school at the University of Michigan. But moving on doesn’t mean he’s giving up on reform. “This is the first year that I’ve been able to vote,” says Patel, “so I’m excited to do that and participate in the democracy for the first time.”