At 26 years old, Ainee Athar’s future hangs on a decision that she’s been waiting for most of her life. In August, she’ll learn whether or not her family will be granted asylum status to remain in America — a place she’s always known as her home.
She doesn’t really have memories of Pakistan, where she was born. Athar was diagnosed with leukemia as a 2-year-old, and she and her mother arrived in Houston on a medical visa to seek treatment that, she said, wasn’t available in Pakistan at the time.
Now Athar, who is among an estimated 2,299 Pakistani immigrants in Austin, finds herself with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status after a series of unexpected life turns. Although her father and sister later joined Athar in Houston through a sponsorship for an employment visa, after Sept. 11, 2001, her father’s application was denied. The family’s asylum case, based on religious persecution because of the oppression faced by Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, also was denied. And then, she said, their attorney failed to file an appeal in time.
That’s when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained Athar’s parents for a month while she was a University of Texas student. “Until then I was doing pretty well in school, but it was disastrous after that,” said Athar, who is now the Texas coalitions director at FWD.us, a national bipartisan group dedicated to passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“For at least a year or two it was hard to go outside and do things with people because I was so scared that someone was going to come get me,” she said.
While most people typically associate recipients of DACA status — which protects unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children — with Latino immigrants, Athar said more work needs to be done to shed light on the ways that non-Hispanic immigrants also are targeted by the immigration system.
According to the Center for Migration Studies, there are an estimated 1.5 million unauthorized Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. and about 169,000 of them are eligible for DACA. However only about 18,000 people have applied, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
If there’s no outreach to this community, Athar said, or translating of materials in languages they understand, or no one knows what is happening to them, then they won’t have access to jobs or health care.
It was after her parents’ detention that Athar became an immigration activist. As a college student, she began to share her personal story about being an Asian “Dreamer” to audiences across the country and joined the thousands of community organizers who worked to get DACA passed, which allowed her to legally work and drive a car.
“Joining the (immigration) movement gave me the space to be around people who knew what I was going through, who I didn’t have to make excuses to about why I couldn’t drive or have a job,” she said. “It gave me a space where I could be myself.”
But Athar sometimes still finds it difficult to have to explain to her peers why she can’t do some things with them such as go on a trip abroad or out partying.
“You know how some people in their 20s will do something like quit their job and go do something crazy and fun like take a road trip? I can’t do that,” she said. She tries to avoid doing anything that might put her DACA status at risk.
Athar hopes to one day obtain her MBA at Stanford or Harvard, but getting there as a DACA recipient offers its own set of challenges. She doesn’t qualify for most financial aid or scholarships, so like many of her dreams, she’s had to put that on hold.
Athar feels hopeful about August, though. If her family’s asylum case works out, she said, they won’t have to worry about their future in this country anymore.
“We could build a life and not constantly push things off,” she said.
Immigrant Heritage Month
As part of Immigrant Heritage Month in June, the American-Statesman has highlighted families from around the world who now call Austin home. For more information about Immigrant Heritage Month, which celebrates the contributions of immigrants in the United States, visit iamanimmigrant.com.
South Central Asians in Austin
There are an estimated 18,194 people born in South Central Asia living in Austin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Here are the countries in that region with the biggest Austin populations:
1. India: 12,594
2. Pakistan: 2,229
3. Iran: 1,585
4. Bangladesh: 526
5. Nepal: 456