A Leader in Stars and Stripes
Junior Sarvani Kunapareddy leads the conversation on immigration activism in the Lake St. Louis community
Where do you see yourself in four years? Do you see yourself at your dream school, pursuing your passions? Or do you envision yourself traveling the world, flying off country to country? As the average American teenager has ample time to think about where they want to be and how they plan to get there, junior Sarvani Kunapareddy has been looking four years forward since she was in eighth grade.
As a straight-A student and a member of the varsity track team, Kunapareddy has no problem distinguishing herself from other students her age. But unlike her peers, as soon as she turns 21, Kunapareddy will not be considered a permanent U.S. resident. Immigrating to the United States from India at the age of 4 with her parents, Kunapareddy has been residing as an H-4 visa dependent with her parents who have an employment or H-1B visa.
“My first thought was like, how could I fix it, how am I going to live with that?” Kunapareddy said. Kunapareddy legally cannot obtain a job, apply for student loans, be eligible for financial aid and could potentially be considered as an international student when it comes time for her to apply for college. A solution to this issue would be for her to obtain a green card, establishing her as a permanent American resident. However, there are quotas on how many green cards can be issued to immigrants from a certain country. Due to the current system in which they are being issued, a significant number of green cards have been wasted and have created a backlog that puts the future of recipients on hold.
Concerned about her future, Kunapareddy decided she was not going to sit around and let it get taken away from her. Her mother, already an activist, allowed her to join in on the fight to clear the green card backlog. Working with an organization called Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA), Kunapareddy and her mother began participating in awareness events a few months after learning of the situation.
“I don’t want to get pity because that’s not what I’m looking for, but I do want to make sure that people are aware about it,” Kunapareddy said. “I think that that’s one of the biggest things because if people don’t talk about it, then how is anything going to happen?”
Already making an impact by spreading information, she began to widen the scope of her actions by going straight to the source of what can amend the green card queue: Congress. With determination, courage and the help of other SIIA activists, the organization’s reform resulted in the drafting of a bill that could potentially serve as a solution to the backlog.
Entitled Bill S. 386, or Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, the bill will increase the immigration quota per country and open more opportunities for immigrants who came to the U.S. on employment or dependent visas. During her journey to securing her future, Kunapareddy has met with several senators including current and former Missouri representatives Roy Blunt, Josh Hawley and Claire McCaskill, urging them to vote for the bill that could promise her education.
“This matters because it affects so many people. It’s not just me or some other people there’s almost 150,000 kids who are getting affected,” Kunapareddy said. Aside from Congressmen, Kunapareddy reached out to her friends and informed them of her situation. She confided in junior Kailey Cain to help her reach her goal of getting the bill passed. Upon learning of the issue, her peers became motivated to fight for their friend.
“It was making me mad because she would be such a good doctor and she’s American at heart,” Cain said. “I just think that its really stupid that she can’t be where she wants to be because of something she couldn’t control.”
In order to get her friends fully involved in her fight to pass Bill S. 386, Kunapareddy spread the word about a campaign initiated by SIIA that could easily send a wave of influence to senators that have the power to vote for the bill.
Letters 4 Fairness is a campaign with the goal to write 100,000 letters to Congress to clear the green card backlog. The letters, which can be written and submitted by anyone, plea Congress representatives to take action against the green card backlogs and allow green card applicants to have the opportunity to live in the United States. Determined to meet the goal, Kunapareddy reached out to history teacher Mr. Tutterrow as well as other teachers and friends in the Lake St. Louis community to write a letter. As she educated more and more people about the situation thousands of immigrants face, more activists arose.
“Initially, I was shocked at the unfairness of it,” Mr. Tutterrow said. “As a very average American, I had no idea how the actual immigration system works and I felt somewhat ashamed of that. Since I’ve taken the time to become educated on the subject, it’s very apparent to me that major changes need to happen.”
The campaign currently has had 90,000 letters delivered to Congress, only 10,000 away from reaching the goal that will change the lives of countless immigrants fighting to continue their life in America.
In the life of a teenage activist, there is no doubt that obstacles will come in the way. But adversity is no match for a teen with the ability to tear down old, endangering policies and not sitting still until new ones are made.
“The hardest part is keeping hope that it’s gonna be okay. If it doesn’t work out I have to start applying for student visas in my first year of college, so thinking about all that is kind of scary,” Kunapareddy said. As she started small by spreading awareness within the school and the community, Kunapareddy was able to open the doors of different ethnicities and bridge the gaps of misconceptions of immigrants.
“I’d say our community, although there isn’t a lot of diversity I feel like a lot of people do want to understand more about different cultures,” Kunapareddy said.
Activism can often become a swinging pendulum suspending thoughts, prayers and anxieties in the balance of time. Once actions are made towards a goal, activists are put in a waiting room, counting the days until they can see the effects of their actions. Bill S. 386 is currently going under revisions and will likely be taken into consideration again at the end of 2020. But until then, Kunapareddy continues to enlighten her peers with the underlying issues recognized on the national news but affect many, even in small towns in Missouri.
“She’s the kind of student you hope others would try to emulate. I have no doubts that she’ll be successful,” Mr. Tutterrow said. Everyday, Sarvani Kunapareddy walks the halls as a high-ranking student athlete, excelling in the classroom and on the track. At the same time, she is a persevering activist, the reach of her actions extending far from Lake St. Louis into the United States Congress. At just 16 years old, she has become a beacon of hope, helping fellow immigrants live under the flag instead of fear.
This story was originally published on Liberty Ledger on February 24, 2020.