Our Stories

Bobby Dutta, immigrant from India and SEIU Local 1000 member

Bobby Dutta, immigrant from India and SEIU Local 1000 member

I was born and raised in India and arrived in the U.S. as a teenager during the late 1970s. My family separation story began when I was 9 years old. My grandmother, who lived in Scotland at the time, got sick, so my mother decided to leave India to take care of her. She intended to take only my younger sister, while my 7-year-old brother and I would stay with relatives. But because my little brother was rambunctious, our family didn’t want to take him in. So they pooled together enough money for airfare and sent him along with my mother, leaving me behind. Because my father worked for the ministry of West Bengal – in a different state – I was sent to live with his sister, my aunt.

I wouldn’t say I had a hard life. My basic needs were met, but it was emotionally traumatic to be separated from my immediate family for so long. Although my aunt loved me, everyone else was scared of her. She was a real “force of nature.” This phase of my life felt very uncertain and unsettled. Where would I go to school? Would I go to Scotland? When was my mother coming back? As my grandmother’s condition got more complicated, my mother stayed longer, so I was separated from my family for five years of my childhood.

She ended up traveling to California to reunite with her brother. Realizing that my mom wouldn’t be returning to India any time soon, relatives started efforts to help me reunite with her. This took a while because the U.S. immigration system is a challenge.

At age 14, I traveled to Canada – which was easier – and lived with another aunt, my mom’s sister, who I didn’t know. My job at her house was to babysit my 3-year-old niece who was a real handful, but I couldn’t complain because I was a guest, living with strangers in a strange land.

It was another year-and-a-half before my papers were approved to travel to the U.S. At 15, I joined my mom and siblings in the California Bay Area. We then lived in the city of Pittsburgh, where rent was cheap. I spoke English with a thick Indian accent. Funny story that I’ll always remember: once, while doing laundry at the local laundromat, a kid came up to me and asked me something that sounded like “How about a beer?” I said I didn’t drink beer. What he actually said was, “How have you been?” Despite the language barrier, I still made a lot of friends.

By the time I reunited with my family, my little sister and brother no longer spoke our native language, so we communicated in English. Our mom never fluently understood English, and sometimes we kids would talk in English so she couldn’t understand. Sadly, there were lots of barriers for her as she migrated to the U.S. It didn’t matter that she was college educated in India; she could never get a job in the U.S. that matched her skills. In India, she worked as a geologist for the Indian government; it was a desk job, and she had an office next to the Indian museum. Here, she was an LVN at a nursing home and worked at night because it was the only shift she could get.

At some point, my mom’s visa expired in the United States, and she became out of status. The threat of deportation always hung over her head. She became a nervous person and feared everything.

My brother and I fought a lot when we were together, but we had neighbors who looked out for us: Stanley, next door, who I’d chat with sometimes; and Mary, the most welcoming person who always brought us Filipino food. Later, we sponsored our father, even though he really didn’t want to come to the U.S. He was already old and comfortable in India, and we had to drag him over here. But my parents ended up living together until my mom got sick. My mom and dad have since passed away.

I became a U.S. citizen at the age of 24. My success and my family’s success are largely due to my decision to naturalize. I went on to run a successful business, and as a citizen, I qualified for opportunities and funding to hire employees and subcontractors so that I could be a good employer for others. My journey was not an easy one, and I know of many other immigrant stories like mine, where kids are separated from their parents and travel to unfamiliar countries alone. Because of my experience, I advocate for a system that allows families to reunite sooner.