SAN DIEGO — When he turned 21, Richie said goodbye to life in San Diego and left the United States.

The 29-year-old, who asked not to be named because he didn’t want to threaten his father’s immigration status, had moved with his family from Mexico while still in elementary school. He took to America quickly, progressing as an athlete and eventually heading to UCLA.

In his last year, school officials called to tell him his visa status was expiring. Richie was on an E-2 dependent visa, a status granted to the children of foreign investors in the United States. He could keep his status until he turned 21.

The E-2 visa was created in 1952 to encourage business innovation and commerce in the United States. Granted to foreign citizens of certain treaty countries, more than 200,000 visas have been granted since 2014, predominantly to citizens of Japan, Canada and Mexico.

The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 after Richie’s father, who also asked not to be named, began to fear for their safety in Mexico. He met the qualifications of an E-2 investor — a foreign national from an approved treaty country who invested “substantially” in a U.S. business — and opened his own automation company.

“We weren’t expecting to stay,” said Richie’s father, who didn’t anticipate spending more than five or six years in America. “Then it became our home without us realizing it.”

However, only primary investors and their spouses can renew their status. Dependents like Richie eventually age out.

The visa also does not allow “dual intent,” which creates a path to a green card.

His father realized too late that Richie’s status was expiring and began exploring other options that would grant the family permanent status.

“I gave up my country, I gave up my business and everything so that my family could be safe,” he said, adding that he still struggles to reconcile with his son’s departure.

To make sure his other son can stay in the U.S., he applied for an EB-5, a visa that requires a minimum $1-million investment in a U.S. business (except in certain areas) to qualify for a green card.

“I didn’t want my younger son to be in the same situation,” Richie’s father explained. The family is in the initial stages of getting green cards.

Richie lives in Mexico City with his wife, hoping to find a way to return to America. He was allowed to stay for a few years on a student visa and a North American Free Trade Agreement work visa but both eventually expired.

“It became very challenging to plan my life as an adult in a country where I always had to be worried about my legal status,” he said. “I felt I wasn’t really wanted.”

Though E-2-dependents officially age out at 21, options exist to continue their stay, said David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Other paths include a temporary student visa, “which offers a three-year subsidized employment if you study” science, technology, engineering and math, he said. Dependents could also transfer to a work visa or be brought back to their parents’ businesses as E-2-employees, he added.

But North worries that the program offers a path for immigrants to “use money to get around the American immigration law.”

Others defend the program as a way to bolster the economy, encourage jobs and spark innovation in U.S. businesses.

Dependents who want to stay longer are asking for more than the agreed terms, North said.

“When you come here legally, you come here with a certain set of arrangements,” North said. Wanting to stay beyond a fixed duration may be “breaking your promise to the government.”

However, those terms don’t limit an immigrant’s right to advocate for themselves, said David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

“We have freedom of speech in this country,” Bier said. “The idea that current law is sacrament ignores the fact that Congress changes the law all the time. An E-2-visa is not proof that they don’t want or don’t deserve a better option.”

A solution could lie in a simple amendment to the Dream Act — taking out the requirement that its recipients be subject to deportation, Bier wrote in one of his publications. Additional language could give dependents permanent residency — not only on E-2 visas but also statuses such as H-4, given to children of specialized temporary workers, and the L-2, granted to children of foreign transfer employees. Dependents using both statuses face the same issue of being forced to leave the country at 21.

“The proposal would help many unauthorized immigrants who deserve help,” writes Bier, “but for reasons that I cannot explain, the Dream Act prioritizes them above legal immigrant children in virtually the same position who meet all the eligibility criteria.”

A group of dependents, calling themselves “legal Dreamers” have spent the last few years campaigning for such amendments law, working with congressional officials to share their stories.

In April, Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) reintroduced a bill that would allow certain E-2 dependents to gain permanent status. An amendment to the Dream Act, drafted by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), included children of H, L and E-2 visa holders. House Democrats voted against it in June.

The vote disappointed Dip Patel, 23, a former E-2 dependent who switched to a student visa that will expire this year.

A Canadian citizen, Patel runs the website, where he shares stories of other children who are concerned they may face what he calls “self-deportation.”

The irony of those in his situation, he said, is that they would be better protected by legislation if they’d broken the law instead of following it.

“It’s just a matter of taking out the requirement to be here illegally from the Dream Act,” said Patel, who lives in Illinois. “We’re not asking for anyone’s right to be taken away, we’re just asking for ours to be added on.”

Permanent residency could have solved other issues Patel faced growing up, including not being able to work on an E-2 visa or qualifying for financial aid when he applied to college.

Coming back as an employee to work at his parent’s convenience store would render his pharmacy degree useless, he said, and with the difficulties of obtaining a work visa, he doubts he will be sponsored for one.

“I wanted to work for the FDA, but that’s obviously not a possibility anymore,” he said.

Patel is aware that he is open to criticism for comparing situations like his to children in the U.S. illegally, but he said he is “fighting for a solution for all.”

“We’re in the exact same situation,” he said. “We spent most of our lives in this country, and now we’re being asked to go back to our ‘homeland.’ But when I think of a homeland, I think of America.”

Fathima writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.