Mahi Madhan Kumar is a high achiever. A sophomore at Chanhassen High School, he recently led his robotics team to third place in a regional competition. He is preparing for a debate team competition in Chicago and is studying for his AP exams in calculus and physics. In his spare time, Madhan Kumar helps educate elementary and middle school students in robotics. He is applying for advanced science and math courses at the University of Minnesota.

But his seemingly limitless trajectory is constrained if he wants to stay in America.

Madhan Kumar, 16, is set to "age out" of his legal immigration status at age 21, and could be forced to leave the only country he remembers. He came to the U.S. from India as a 4-year-old with his parents; his dad is an engineer working under an H-1B visa for highly skilled immigrants that gets renewed every three years. But amid a massive green card backlog for Indian nationals, Madhan Kumar has no direct pathway to stay.

"As much as I get caught up in all my school stuff and my activities, this situation is always in the back of my mind," Madhan Kumar said. "It doesn't really go away. … I definitely do have more anxiety than a lot of other kids do."

While public debate focuses on undocumented migrants crossing the southern border, Madhan Kumar's conundrum illustrates the obstacles of many legal immigrants seeking long-term stability in the United States.

Provisions to protect children of H-1B visa holders from aging out of the system were a little-noticed casualty of the bipartisan Senate immigration deal that collapsed in February amid election year politicking. The legislation would have allowed longtime child immigrants like Madhan Kumar to remain here while their parents' green card applications slowly make their way through the system.

The Cato Institute estimates that 100,000 youth stuck in the green card backlog will age out, leaving them to self-deport, try to hop from visa to visa with no guarantees or stay here illegally to remain with their parents. The children are not eligible for Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects immigrant "dreamers" brought here without legal permission as minors. Nor are so-called documented dreamers allowed work permits, though DACA dreamers are.

Improve the Dream, a youth-led organization of documented dreamers, has advocated for legislation such as the bipartisan America's Children Act, introduced for the second time last year with bipartisan sponsors including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It would allow those children to obtain permanent residency if they've maintained their status here for a decade and graduated from college. It would also protect people from aging out and make them eligible for job permits. The group of young immigrants is working with lawmakers to push for action from the Biden administration.

"I am not being extreme when I say it's 25 years for a path to citizenship for a legal immigrant following all the rules and contributing a high amount of tax dollars," said Satveer Chaudhary, Minneapolis immigration attorney. "Politicians jump up and down about illegal immigration and then turn around and tighten up legal immigration. … The example of the H-1B dependent children who are aging out is an extreme but real example of that."

If he had known that green card processing would wind up so backlogged, Madhan Kumar's father said, "I wouldn't have come."

His dad, Madhan Kumar Rajendran, earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's in computer application and began working in the tech hub of Bengaluru. But the cost of living was high, and Rajendran requested a company transfer to Illinois. His wife and son joined him in 2012, when he received an H-1B visa to work for a company in Chaska as a software engineer. Nearly 37,000 foreign workers with highly specialized skills were approved for such visas in Minnesota over the past decade.

Rajendran's employer started a green card application on his behalf in 2015. But a process that used to take only a handful of years for Indian nationals started dragging on as the number of Indians approved for specialized employment visas began drastically exceeding the yearly allotment of green cards. (No one country can account for more than 7%.) The Congressional Research Service estimated in 2020 that the backlog would double by 2030, and that many Indian nationals could expect to wait decades for approval.

Rajendran closely watches the U.S. Department of State's monthly visa bulletin, but the numbers barely move. It shows that the government is still processing green card applications filed in 2012 from Indians in his visa category. His family has bought a spacious home in Chaska and is active in the community, but the roots they've put down belie their temporary status. Rajendran's current H-1B visa expires in July, and every three years he counts on his employer to renew it. "Every three years," he said, "it's a life-or-death situation."

As Madhan Kumar considers colleges, his family strategizes about how to work around his restrictions. After he turns 21, he doesn't have to self-deport right away. He could switch to an international student visa — and pay a higher tuition rate — then move to a visa that allows him on-the-job training in his field. After that, he could apply for the H-1B visa lottery. His family has wondered whether it would be better to try his luck in Canada.

Madhan Kumar loves to spend time in his high school robotics lab, where he is captain of the Stormbots team. One recent afternoon, he showed off a robot his team built named Purple Rain. He stayed for hours after school writing code to program the robot for a recent competition in St. Cloud.

He has a lot of interest in government, too. He is captain of the debate team and is practicing for the National Catholic Forensic League finals in Chicago in May, putting together arguments on whether the U.S. should use taxpayer funding for election campaigns.

Madhan Kumar has thought about becoming a lawyer or doctor, starting a business or working for NASA, but those jobs would be difficult or impossible with his visa restrictions. So he and his father have talked about him going into engineering or data and computer science because it's more practical to find an employer to sponsor him.

Rajendran's Indian immigrant friend Siva Kumar of Plymouth, faces a similar dilemma. His daughter is graduating from Wayzata High School and plans to attend the University of Minnesota Rochester. Kumar advised her to become a nurse in hopes that she can find a hospital to sponsor her, and has urged his younger daughter to pursue a career in computer science.

"That is the tricky thing … even if she wants to pursue a lot of other careers, because of this she is forced to do some jobs which will [be eligible for] H1B," he said. "They need to go into something that can give them a visa … willing or not willing, they need to choose that career path."

He added: "It's a lot of stress."

As for Madhan Kumar, he feels like any other American teen in many ways, but he knows that he's not.

"I get the same opportunities that every other kid gets to go to school, I get to go to activities, I get to live normally," he said. "But because of the restrictions I might need to go back and end the career that I want to build and the education I want to get."