One 'Dreamer' vows to finish med school in the face of DACA chaos
Denisse Rojas, a third-year medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, on Tuesday took the news of the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, with a mixture of resignation and resolve.
"In some ways there's a lot of uncertainty, but I have dealt with uncertainty my whole life," she said. "It's a reminder that we're much more than our immigration status, that our families have been able to succeed in spite of our challenges."
Rojas is one of some 800,000 "Dreamers" who were permitted to attend college and work in the U.S. for two-year periods without fear of deportation under the Obama-era program initiated through executive order in 2012. President Donald Trump challenged Congress to take up the matter before the government starts to phase out the program on March 5.
No new applications will be accepted, but DACA recipients whose legal status expires on or before March 5 can apply to extend their permission to work and study for two more years if they do so by Oct. 5. Protesters demonstrated against the DACA decision around the country. By Tuesday evening, Trump posted a tweet that seemed to soften the original announcement: "Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!"
Rojas is also co-founder of Pre-Health Dreamers, a group that provides support and encouragement to about 700 Dreamers around the U.S. who aspire to healthcare careers. Her immediate, and practical, concern was how she'd complete her medical training and fulfill her long-term goal to shape healthcare policy in underserved communities.
"My ability to pursue my residency is dependent upon my ability to get a work permit," she said.
Rojas, who always excelled in the sciences, last year received a prestigious $90,000 merit-based scholarship, called the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, which is for immigrants and children of immigrants, to help her attend medical school. Only 30 people get the award each year.
But Rojas said she has faced obstacles as an undocumented immigrant whose family came to Fremont, Calif., from Mexico when she was a baby. Until DACA, she couldn't get a driver's license or a work permit or apply for financial aid. As a college student, she once found she couldn't buy the cough medicine she needed for lack of an ID that proved she was 18.
Rojas wanted to go to medical school because she saw how many immigrants were unable to get access to healthcare, particularly from someone who spoke their language and shared their culture. Her family moved to Canada when her mother needed surgery because they couldn't obtain healthcare in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. In addition to earning her medical degree and probably pursuing a specialty, Rojas is considering getting a master's degree in public policy.
"I'm passionate about health policy and being a provider who is able to give compassionate care and able to form policies, someone on the ground who can impact the healthcare system," Rojas said.
Rojas is one of a half dozen Dreamers currently enrolled at Icahn School of Medicine, according to a Mount Sinai spokeswoman. And she's one of 65 DACA participants currently training as physicians nationwide, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Last year 113 students with DACA status applied to medical school, a spokesman said.
Dr. Darrell Kirch, president and CEO of the medical-school association said in a statement Tuesday the group was "extremely dismayed" by the Trump administration's decision to rescind DACA. Even with the 'wind-down process' described by the administration, the implications of this action for medical students, medical residents and researchers with DACA status are serious and will interfere with their ability to complete their training and contribute meaningfully to the health of the nation," the association said.
The group, which is calling upon Congress to enact legislation to protect individuals with DACA status, said that medical students, residents and researchers with DACA status contribute to diversity in medicine and can mitigate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic health disparities and improve patient care.
Speaking of her fellow Dreamers, Rojas said they were all feeling grief at the Trump administration's announcement, but they were focusing their energy on getting Congress to pass immigration reform.
"One 'Dreamer' vows to finish med school in the face of DACA chaos" originally appeared in Crain's New York Business.
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