Loyola’s Undocumented Medical Students Persevere with Future in Limbo

Jane Miller | The PHOENIXA letter-writing campaign in support of passage of the Dream Act, which would open up a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States at a young age, took place across Loyola’s Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses from Oct. 12-13. Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine was the first college nationwide to allow in undocumented medical students.

More than a month after the announcement of the rescinding of The Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the undocumented student community and its allies at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine are seeing some positive outcomes despite the continued struggle of an uncertain future.

President Barack Obama enacted the DACA policy in 2012, which gave minors illegally entering the United States a two-year period of deferred action from deportation on a renewable basis and the opportunity to acquire a work permit.

President Donald Trump announced the termination of DACA on Sept. 5.

Stritch was the first school in the country to open their admissions criteria to students under DACA.

Stritch’s first group of DACA students entered at the start of the 2014-15 school year, and since then, Stritch has built its program to house the most concentrated community of undocumented doctoral students in the nation. Of the roughly 600 students enrolled at Stritch, 32 students are undocumented, according to Mark Kuczewski, chair of the Department of Medical Education and a professor of medical ethics at Stritch.

Stritch students’ abilities to complete a full residency program may be compromised by this rescinding.

Residency is a critical phase in an individual’s advancement in his or her medical career. Graduates of medical school work for three to five years in a paid training position at a medical institution before moving on to a full-time job in his or her field.

Since revoking DACA, the inability of undocumented students to renew their two-year work permits could prevent them from committing to the full duration of a residency, putting their careers on hold.

However, DACA’s repeal has led to an unexpected development: many undocumented upperclassman are receiving more interviews for residency placements than usual, said Kuczewski.

Kuczewski attributes this to the level of attention DACA has received following Trump’s announcement.

“Now [employers] know what is going on and they know it’s a risk but they are at least willing to go down this road of interviewing [students] and see what happens,” Kuczewski said.

In light of the current political climate, Kuczewski said a number of students are using their positions as educated undocumented students to speak out to the media and within the community to inform people about their situation.

Zarna Patel, a 24-year-old third-year medical student at Stritch, is one such individual.

For Patel, whose family emigrated from India when she was 3 years old, it took a year and half into her time at Stritch to go public about her identity as an undocumented student.

Patel said that the 2016 presidential election motivated her to speak openly about her experience and identity.

“You just feel really helpless because there are people making these decisions about your life and livelihood and you don’t really get to have a say in it,” Patel said. “After feeling all that frustration and helplessness I kind of realized if there is anything that I can do to share my story and talk about it … [then] hopefully someone reads it or hears it and thinks twice about their opinion on DACA and undocumented students.”

Patel said speaking out has allowed her to take charge of her own identity and story.

“A lot of people kind of paint a picture of undocumented immigrants … being the one to share my own story in my own words through the advocacy that Stritch allows us to do, I think, was super empowering,” Patel said.

The sense of community among the undocumented student population at Stritch is strong, Patel said.

“Before coming to Stritch, I had never met another undocumented person before,” Patel said. “Even the most supportive people can’t always understand because we have been living this for decades.”

The support of the community of students and faculty as allies at Stritch also doesn’t go unnoticed by the undocumented community.

“The faculty and our own peers that are not undocumented in our class were super welcoming and willing and eager to hear out stories … having that love and support definitely made it easier to talk about,” Patel said.

In September, students participated in a rally in the atrium at Stritch. Patel described the event as a magnificent showing of support for the undocumented student community.

Sahand Ghodrati, a 24-year-old second-year medical student, is the president of the second-year class at Stritch. Ghodrati organized the rally that took place Sept. 6, the day after Trump’s announcement.

Ghodrati said the rally fostered a sense of unity in the Stritch community, a unity that had been tested following the 2016 election.

“There has been an outpouring of support for this issue and for our undocumented colleagues on both sides of the ideological spectrum,” Ghodrati said. “The one thing that really stood out to me was that out of the few DACA recipients that I spoke to that day, they all seemed very much full of hope.”

Ghodrati added that the rally signified increased acknowledgement the undocumented community has received following Trump’s decision to end the DACA program.

Stritch is also advocating for the passage of the Dream Act, a proposed bill that would open a path to citizenship for those undocumented that came to the United States as minors. The act was first proposed in 2001 by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and has yet to pass despite numerous attempts.

Patel said she hopes to see a comprehensive Dream Act, one that accounts for all eligible persons who are undocumented, and allows individuals to achieve citizenship in a reasonable time frame.

“[Elected officials need an] understanding that it is also a humanitarian issue and not just an immigration or economic issue,” Patel said.

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