Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and served as a Board Member for the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council. He also serves on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force.  Steve is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Last fall, Shristi Sharma left her hometown in rural Iowa, where her mom teaches high school and her dad is an accountant, and moved to the Triangle to study coding and neuroscience. As one of this year’s elite Robertson Scholars, Shristi is enrolled simultaneously at both Duke and Chapel Hill. After graduating, she hopes to become a researcher, and use her talents in the life sciences and computer science to help others.

But there’s a catch: Shristi is a “documented Dreamer.” Because of an obscure immigration statute, she may soon have to give up her studies and “self-deport” back to a country she barely remembers. She’s not alone.  Over 250,000 young adults are in the same situation. Over the next few years, the United States is poised to lose an absurd amount of STEM brainpower and talent. It couldn’t be happening at a worse time for the United States.

Shristi Sharma (Photo via Steve Rao)

Shristi’s family moved to Iowa from India when she was 5 years old, and ever since, her parents have worked lawfully on temporary H-1B skilled-worker visas. They applied for permanent residency back in 2014 — but under current rules, which force people from populous countries to wait decades for residency, they aren’t expected to qualify for green cards until sometime around 2099.

That’s a big problem. Like all documented Dreamers, Shristi entered the country as her parents’ dependent, but in 2 years, when she turns 21, she’ll lose her visa status. Instead of staying and launching a career in the sciences — or even finishing her degree — she’ll be forced to return to India alone.

The Triangle is currently home to tens of thousands of H-1B visa holders, many from countries like India that have long waiting-times for green cards. People like Shristi are in an especially maddening situation. They were raised American and given an American public education on the dime of American taxpayers. Why wouldn’t we want them to stay here and give back to our communities? Just look at Shristi: by any rational standard, she is exactly the kind of person we should be fighting to keep in the United States. As a 4th grader, Shristi taught herself to code, then founded two Girls Who Code clubs to help other kids in her community learn computer skills. She created an online course to help young girls in India learn coding too.

While in high school, Shristi used her coding skills to create a smartphone app that uses FitBit data to detect early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. The app, which won Shristi first place in Iowa’s state science fair, could soon be used to identify Alzheimer’s patients 10 to 15 years before they start showing symptoms, giving them vital time to seek treatment.

In other words, Shristi isn’t just a high-flying scholarship student. She’s an entrepreneurial and creative young woman who’s determined to use her talents and her technical skills to make a real difference in the world. But her visa status has prevented her from accepting internships or doing any kind of paid work — and when her visa expires, she’ll have to leave. That’s disastrous for North Carolina’s businesses: with 60% of businesses struggling to recruit high-skilled technical workers, we simply can’t afford to lose people like Shristi.

Doesn’t have to be this way

Like Shristi’s parents, my own father came to America to find work. He served as a doctor and was able to stay and build a future here. Because America welcomed him in, I got the chance to grow up American, and eventually went on to become our state’s first Asian-American elected official.

Like me, Shristi grew up saying the pledge of allegiance and singing along to the Star Spangled Banner. But under our current system, there is no path for her. The clock is ticking. When the bell rings, it’s India or perhaps Canada (a country with significantly friendlier immigration polices) that will reap the benefits of her first-class American education.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Last summer, Wake County Democrat Rep. Deborah Ross joined with Republican colleagues — including Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who represents Shristi’s Iowa hometown — to propose a solution: the Americas CHILDREN Act. This crucial legislation would create a path forward for people like Shristi, enabling them to stay, study, work, and qualify for residency and eventual citizenship.

Dreamers deserve a fair shake

North Carolina, is a perfect example of a state where Dreamers contribute  more than their fair share to economic growth and prosperity.

Today, we have 35,000 Dreamers that contribute over $484 million to our economy, and also create and fill many of the jobs in our state.

We all know that it’s hard to pass legislation these days. But the documented Dreamers deserve a fair shake, and there’s real momentum for change. Let’s pull together, and get the job done — for kids like Shristi, and for all of us here in North Carolina who need their skills, their creativity, and their energy to keep driving our innovation economy forward.

More from Steve Rao

Fighting labor shortage, inflation: Immigrants can get the job done on both fronts

Morrisville is betting that cricket – the sport – ignites more economic growth

Making NC a ‘smart state:’ Lessons learned from the Morrisville smart city playbook