POLITICS
09/11/2017 05:45 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2017

Dreamers In Medical School Ask Congress To Help Them So They Can Help Others

If these would-be doctors lose their work permits and deportation protections, underserved communities could lose out, too.

Manuel Bernal, a fourth-year medical student, is busy studying and soon will be applying to residency programs in hopes of one day becoming an emergency room physician who serves underserved communities ― he hopes in his home state of Tennessee.

Now he is adding another task: lobbying members of Congress to pass a bill protecting young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, like he did. After President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last week, the need for legislation is urgent for Bernal, and not just because DACA recipients’ work permits and deportation protections will begin to expire in larger numbers in six months.

If Congress doesn’t pass something soon, Bernal’s medical career would be stalled ― and his hopes of serving underserved communities along with it.

“It’s the worst timing, really, because I’m at the end of my med school career and ready to transition over to the next phase of my career. ... If there’s no resolution passed it would make it impossible to move on,” he said.

Bernal attends the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. On Tuesday, the day Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a speech announcing the end of the program, Bernal was working a shift at an emergency department.

“I would go to the bathroom and look at social media to see what kind of information I could potentially get, but otherwise I had patients to see and things to do so I couldn’t really dwell on that,” Bernal said. “On my drive home, that’s really when I finally had some silence to myself to start processing that and what it meant.”

Bernal was among the 32 DACA recipients at the Stritch School of Medicine, which was the first to explicitly invite and admit students with DACA status beginning in 2014. Nearly 100 DACA recipients are estimated to be in medical school around the country this year, and for them ending the program would destroy their chances at a career in medicine in the U.S., because they would be unable to legally work and unable to receive loans.

I have the immigrant mentality that you go where you are needed and you do the work that no one else wants to do. Cesar Montelongo Hernandez, a DACA recipient pursuing a medical degree and PhD

Bernal has less than a week until he has to begin applying for residency programs, after which he will start interviewing and eventually be matched this spring. He said he would have to drop out of the program if Congress doesn’t come up with some sort of solution by then that would allow him to work legally because his work permit is set to expire in March 2019, which would make him unable to complete residency.

Ideally Congress will act fast ― Bernal is nervous that he won’t even get interviews because DACA was rescinded.

“How do I let programs know that they should interview me even though there’s not a fix on the books yet?” he said.

Medical professionals urged Trump not to discontinue the DACA program and are now also urging Congress to step in to protect Dreamers, potentially by passing the Dream Act to grant them legal status. There are many benefits to allowing undocumented youth to attend medical school and practice medicine, experts have argued, as the field faces a shortage of physicians, especially those who want to work in underserved communities.

American Medical Association executive vice president and CEO James L. Madara specifically cited the need for more physicians in a Sept. 5 letter to congressional leaders urging them to take action to help DACA recipients, who he said are “more likely to work in high-need areas where communities face challenges in recruiting other physicians.”

“Without these physicians, the AMA is concerned that the quality of care provided in these communities will be negatively impacted and that patient access to care will suffer,” Madara wrote.

Many DACA students have said they were inspired to pursue medicine in part because they saw their own families and communities struggle to get care, whether it was due to language barriers, a shortage of care providers, lack of insurance or all of the above.

“I have the immigrant mentality that you go where you are needed and you do the work that no one else wants to do,” said Cesar Montelongo Hernandez, a DACA recipient in an eight-year dual M.D.-PhD program at the Stritch School of Medicine.

He grew up mostly in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He and his family moved from across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, when he was 10 years old and overstayed their visas, in part because his father had then-undiagnosed diabetes and feared he wouldn’t be able to take care of his family in Juárez, given the violence and his inability to work. 

Even in the U.S., Montelongo Hernandez’s father did not get care immediately because they did not know the resources available and had little access. 

“That feeling of helpless and not knowing why a loved one is sick was what pushed me into wanting to be a physician,” Montelongo Hernandez said.

Montelongo Hernandez is in his third year of he competitive M.D.-PhD program, which he enjoys because it emphasizes research along with practicing medicine. He has one more year on his DACA work permit, and losing it would mean his “life was thrown on its head,” Montelongo Hernandez said.

On Tuesday, he stepped out of class to watch Sessions give his speech announcing the end of DACA. Sessions suggested its recipients had been taking benefits and jobs from American citizens. It felt unfair that they were being presented “like parasites” when they have worked hard, paid taxes and followed the rules as best as they can, Montelongo Hernandez said.

“I thought I had prepared myself but just having to face the reality, it’s pretty devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Montelongo Hernandez plans to keep pushing forward and speaking out in hopes that it will lead to legislation in Congress.

He and other DACA recipients have the full support of the Stritch School of Medicine, where students held an event after the announcement about the program to show they stood with their undocumented classmates, said Mark G. Kuczewski, chair of its Department of Medical Education.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get them through medical school no matter what,” he said.

They will also help students advocate for the Dream Act, Kuczewski said. Students are calling lawmakers from their home states to urge them to support the bill. Bernal plans to make a greater effort to lobby Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both Republicans.

He said it gave him hope when Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III (R) ― one of the state attorneys general who threatened Trump with legal action if he did not end DACA ― not only said he would not challenge the president over the program but also urged Congress to pass the Dream Act.

“I’m very proud to be from Tennessee and I feel like I’m American in every way but one, lacking legal documentation to prove that I’m American,” Bernal said. “Tennessee is my home, so it would mean the world to me if I had senators from a historically conservative state offer their support.”

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