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MAYWOOD | Local medical student Alejandra Duran Arreola dreams of becoming an OB-GYN in her home state of Georgia, where there’s a shortage of doctors and one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the U.S.
However, the 26-yr-old Mexican immigrant is now trapped in the debate over a program protecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants like her from deportation. Her future as a doctor rests heavily on whether Congress finds an alternative to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Donald Trump phased out last month.
Started by then-President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA allows young immigrants who came to the US illegally as children to apply for a renewable two-years visa, that allows them to work legally in the U.S. and stave deportation. Those who qualify for the program have been in the U.S. since 2007, came before they turned 16, under 31 before June 15, 2012, must be in school, have high school diploma or be a U.S. veteran. The status doesn’t put participants to legal permanent residency, but it does means recipients can get a driver’s licenses, credit cards and open bank accounts. A recent survey found that after receiving DACA, 15 percent of recipients started their own business, and 16 percent purchased a home, according to a CNN report. DACA critics say DACA is unconstitutional because Obama executed executive action and did not seek Congressional approval. They also argue that the program promotes illegal immigration. However, ending the program would eliminate nearly 1 million people from the workforce and cost the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion.
Arreola was brought to the U.S. illegally at age 14. She is among the nearly 100 medical students nationwide who are enrolled in DACA, who have become a force to be reckon with in the immigration debate. The countless stories from recipients like Arreola have resonated with leaders in Washington. Having excelled academically and gained admission into the top echelon of medical schools, they’re on the verge of starting residencies to treat patients, a move some experts say could help address the nation’s worsening doctor shortage. “It’s mostly a tragedy of wasted talent and resources,” said Mark Kuczewski, who heads the medical education department at Loyola University’s medical school, where Arreola is in her second year. “Our country will have said, “You cannot go treat patients.” Loyola Medical School, based in Maywood, was the first to openly accept DACA students and has the largest concentration or recipients nationwide at 32. California and New York also have significant populations, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, reported the Associated Press.
Arreola traveled to Washington last month with fellow Loyola medical student and DACA recipient Cesar Montolongo Hernandez to talk to stakeholders. In their meetings with lawmakers, they positioned the program as a “medical necessity” but also want a solution for others with DACA recipients. A 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortfall of between about 35,000 and 83,000 doctors in 2025. That shortage is expected to increase with population growth and aging. The shortage does not include medical students in the nation under DACA should the program be discontinued.
Hernandez, 28, remembers when his parents made the risky decision to overstay their migrant worker visa and keep the family in the U.S. He was just 10-years-old and his sister was nine. “My family lived in Juarez in Mexico. We were very poor,” he said. “The drug cartel was very active there and my parents feared for us.” Hernandez, also a student at Loyola, is pursuing a Ph.D., and wants to focus his research on early detection of diseases. His work permit expires next September, and he’s worried he won’t qualify for scientific research funding without the program. “I’ve shown I deserve to be here,” said Hernandez, who met with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who’s called for Congress to quickly pass a replacement for DACA.
For Arreola it’s about returning to the state she’s called home since she was 14 and giving back to areas in need of doctors. “My family is from there; I know those people,” Arreola said. “Those are the people that inspired to really give this a push.” Among Washington officials that Arreola met with were policy staff for Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who believes the Obama program was “an overreach of executive power” but also wants Congress to rewrite a plan to protect DACA recipients.
Medical school administrators say the immigrant students stand out even among their accomplished peers: They’re often bilingual and bicultural, have overcome adversity and are more likely to work with underserved populations or rural areas. “They come with a cultural competency for how to best treat the individuals from their background, whether immigrants or different races and ethnicities,” said Matthew Shick, a government relations director for the Association of American Medical Colleges, in a CNN report. “That gets translated over to their peers in education and training.”
Zarna Patel, 24, is a third-year student at Loyola who was brought to the U.S. from India as a 3-year-old without any legal documents. Her DACA permit expires in January. She’s trying to renew it to continue medical school rotations that require clinical work. If she’s able to work in the U.S., Patel says she will work in disadvantaged areas of Illinois for four years, part of her agreement to get school loans. “Growing up, I didn’t have insurance,” she said. “I knew what that felt like, being locked out of the whole system.”
For others, there’s added worry of being stuck with debt and student loans they can’t repay.
As for Hernandez, he puts it plainly, “I one year left of protection.” “Right now, I am pinning my hopes on Congress.” His DACA status also gives him employment authorization. He needs this because the stipend he gets from Loyola, which he uses for living and other expenses, is paid as a salary. The work permit will also be critical for his clinical training and for his residency in a few years. “Once my employment authorization expires, I can’t be paid,” he said.
Out of its 600 medical students, Loyola has 32 DACA status students and most of the them are supported by three outside loan programs. One major condition of these loans is that these students later serve as physicians in a part of Illinois that is experiencing a doctor shortage after they complete their training, said Mark G. Kuczewski, chair of the department of medical education at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine.
If DACA expires, added to the doctor shortage, these students will no longer qualify for loans or have a means for their repayment.