I watched news coverage of the 2016 presidential election results sitting beside my roommate, a medical student at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. He has been in this country since he was a kid, but he is undocumented. Now, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on life support, I have a much more intimate understanding of the fear on his face that evening in November.
Like many undocumented youth, my roommate learned of his immigration status only 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 Thailand, his country of birth but not his allegiance, that this scenario is especially ridiculous as he is preparing 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 it is now home to more undocumented students than any other medical school in the country. Our DACA classmates are among the most resilient people I have ever met. They excel in a grueling medical curriculum despite the daily demonization of their status in our national political conversation.
Reminding folks that “Dreamers” stand for the same things native-born citizens do shouldn't be necessary. But just in case some readers are 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.
To respond to this shortage and to tackle historic inequities that have led to underrepresentation of minority groups, medical schools have shifted toward mission-based admissions initiatives that weigh more than mere grades and standardized test scores. At Loyola, a Jesuit institution, this mission is grounded in the principles of social justice and service to others. The university decided to build its Loyola Center for Health on Roosevelt in the less affluent western suburbs of Chicago, less than a mile from our school's campus. The Access to Care program there provides free health care to individuals in the local uninsured population, including people who are undocumented.
Health equity is further promoted by recruiting medical students from diverse backgrounds. This initiative improves health access in underserved communities: data have 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 not only will result in our graduates reaching a broader range of patients but also will guarantee they are 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.
To be sure, we were not immune to the divisive forces unleashed during the 2016 presidential campaign. Our class's stark ideological divide has compromised personal relationships and introduced troubling fault lines in our community, just as it did for people across the country.
But despite our differences, we recognize the importance of supporting our undocumented colleagues. Even the majority of our most conservative classmates attended a rally for 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 common sense.