Gabriela Andrade hasn’t seen her grandparents in more than a decade. She may never see them again.

Andrade’s family moved to the U.S. from Brazil when she was 15 years old. She lives here, she works here, she files her taxes here, though the U.S. government would not know if she didn’t. This is because Andrade, now 26, is not a legal citizen. If she leaves the country to visit her grandparents in Brazil, she may not be able to return.

“Today, I speak English better than I speak Portugese, all my friends are American, I’ve traveled to more places here than I ever had in Brazil, I file taxes every year. I feel American so it’s hard to accept I am not welcome in my own country,” she said.

Andrade, a Haleiwa resident, shared her story with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard at an immigration forum in Honolulu yesterday. She said President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows young immigrants to stay and work in the U.S. for two years without fear of deportation, gave her the courage to start telling others her story.

Andrade is one of an estimated 40,000 illegal immigrants in Hawaii, according to a 2011 study by Pew Research Center.

As the debate over how to allow a path toward citizenship for America’s 11 million illegal immigrants continues in Washington, Hawaii residents are worried that a related immigration issue — family reunification — will fall by the wayside. Some immigrants in Hawaii have been waiting more than 20 years to be reunited with husbands, wives, sons and daughters.

“Our system keeps families apart,” said Maile Hirota, chairman for Hawaii’s chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “A mother or father trying to bring a married son or daughter from the Philippines will have to wait 21 years for them to be eligible for a green card here.”

Reunification of Filipino families is important for Sen. Mazie Hirono, who mentioned it as one of her top priorities in a recent interview with Civil Beat.

But the issue has traditionally been a tough sell to Congress.

“In previous years, there’ve been efforts to strick out this family reunification portion of the bill because other states don’t have this problem because their immigrants aren’t Asian immigrants [or] they aren’t as big as the Latino immigrant population,” said Drew Astolfi, state director of Faith Action for Community Equity. “And so this idea of family reunification gets lost because Latino immigrants don’t have that issue because they can just come across [the border].”

Language concerning family reunification was almost removed from federal legislation two years ago, but late Sen. Daniel Inouye, whose parents emigrated from Japan, said “no way,” according to Astolfi.

Astolfi and others hope Gabbard will follow in Inouye’s footsteps in defending family reunification.

“These are issues that we’re going to keep working together on because each of us might have a different area of interest, but I know that coming together, we can come out with a stronger voice so that the real people who are affected by this have the best chance to move forward,” Gabbard said on Thursday.

Andrade is looking for a more permanent solution. She hopes to continue her education, but says right now, she cannot afford to pay the out-of-state fees that are almost three times as much as resident tuition at University of Hawaii.

But college could soon be in reach for Andrade. The University of Hawaii Board of Regents voted Thursday to treat undocumented students as residents.

“We were raised here, we do not know any other country anymore,” Andrade said. “It doesn’t make any sense to keep us in this limbo…Now is the time to get something done.”