I watched news coverage of the 2016 presidential election results sitting beside my roommate, an undocumented medical student attending the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Today, with DACA recently being rescinded, and the future of my undocumented colleagues in jeopardy, I have a much more intimate understanding of the fear on his face that evening in November.
Like many undocumented youth, my roommate only learned of his immigration status when it came time to apply for college. He grew up in our society, was educated by our public school system where he pledged allegiance to our flag, and cherishes American values as much as anyone I know. It occurs to me now, as he faces the threat of being sent “back” to his country of birth, Thailand, that this scenario is as ridiculous as me being sent to some arbitrary country that I don’t know—just as I’m getting ready to dedicate a lifelong career to the betterment of our nation’s health.
Stritch was the first U.S. medical school to openly accept applications from DACA recipients, and is now home to more undocumented students than any other medical school in the country. As president of the Loyola Stritch Class of 2020, I feel compelled to speak out in support of our undocumented colleagues in light of recent attacks on their character, their right to a future as Americans and their ability to contribute substantially to the medical profession.
Our DACA classmates are among the most resilient people I have ever met. Somehow, they continue to excel in a grueling medical curriculum despite the daily demonization of their status in our national political conversation. Their perseverance is not limited to dedication in the classroom and unwavering compassion in the clinic. For example, my roommate spent this summer working at a prestigious primary care internship just to send money back to his parents in central California.
Reminding folks that “dreamers” are often capable, driven individuals should be superfluous. The only thing separating my roommate and me—two young people who have only known the U.S. as our home, who wish to contribute to this society and its ideals—is a piece of paper. We shouldn’t decide whether to embrace the youth of our country, documented or undocumented, based on that piece of paper. These are human beings who stand for the same things we do regardless of vocation or the perceived “value” associated with their skill sets.
But just in case some readers are still not convinced, I will make the case for undocumented physicians. One thing most Americans can agree on, even in 2017, is that our health care system has plenty of room for improvement. The dramatic shortage of providers in underserved communities is one area of focus. American medical schools, through their role as the suppliers of physicians, are responsible for assessing this shortage and addressing it responsibly. With an aging U.S. population, the gaping hole in the primary care workforce caused by medical students increasingly opting for higher-paying specialties and subspecialties will only get worse.
To respond to this shortage, and to simultaneously address historic inequities that have led to underrepresentation of minority groups, medical schools have shifted toward mission-based admissions initiatives that weigh more than mere GPA and standardized test scores. At Loyola, a Jesuit institution, this mission is founded on the principles of social justice and service to others. This is demonstrated in Loyola’s decision to build its flagship health center (ranked number three in the state) in the underserved western suburbs of Chicago. Our “Access to Care” clinic less than a mile from our school’s campus provides free health care to the local uninsured population, including individuals who are undocumented.
Health equity is further promoted by recruiting medical students from diverse backgrounds. Not only does this work to address gaps in representation for minority physicians, it also serves to improve health outcomes in underserved communities; data has shown repeatedly that underrepresented minorities in medicine go on to practice in underserved communities at higher rates. Undocumented immigrants, who live in society’s shadows without access to health care, financial freedoms or the personal agency of having a driver’s license, for example, are among the most disenfranchised groups in today’s America.
Stritch began admitting undocumented students in 2014, in recognition of the medical profession’s duty to benefit all people. Their presence will not only result in a broader reach of patients for our graduating class but is a key component of our professional development. When we confront differing identities and perspectives, we actively build empathy—perhaps the most vital quality of any good doctor.
It’s important to note that inclusion of undocumented students is part of an overarching mission to foster a community of students that represents all of America—and our admissions team was remarkably successful in this effort for the class of 2020. Being “the most diverse class in school history” doesn’t just mean there are more minorities among us than ever before (which there are), it means that as a group of 160 individuals, we represent a wide range of ideas, identities and life experiences.
As a result, we were not immune to the divisive forces of 2016, when we all met. Our class’s stark ideological divide has compromised personal relationships, and introduced troubling fault lines in our community—much like the recent phenomena observed in any other group of professionals across the country. It’s the initial reason I ran for class president at the end of our first year—but that’s another topic on which I could write volumes.
The point is: despite our striking differences, we universally recognize the importance of supporting our undocumented colleagues. Even the majority of our most conservative classmates attended our rally in solidarity with our DACA classmates, and feel strongly about their right to realize their passion for treating the sick of this nation. For us, this is not a matter of politics—it’s a common sense step toward a healthier America.