Pakistani immigrant Aaima Sayed has always been fascinated by mental health. It’s a passion that’s driven her to succeed in college and make her way through medical school at Loyola University, even though her undocumented status disqualified her for financial aid and forced her to depend on the sacrifices of family members and find private loans. She’s now facing her biggest hurdle yet. The uncertainty of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives her the right to work in the United States, means she might not be eligible to complete her psychiatry residency, which is a critical step in her journey to become a doctor.
Sayed already has already received far fewer requests for residency interviews than her colleagues. “Why would they hire someone who might have to leave the country in the middle of the program?” she says. “I’ve worked so hard, and I was hoping to get more interviews. I’m so disappointed.” The threat to her professional future is personally devastating, but it’s also a blow to the mental health profession, which desperately needs more psychiatrists. Americans in nearly 60 percent of U.S. counties don’t have access to a single psychiatrist, and the federal government estimates that almost 2,800 additional mental health specialists are needed to fill the shortage, according to a report by New American Economy. In fact, the U.S. medical profession has a long history of embracing immigrants to meet rising healthcare demands. One 2015 study found that nearly a quarter of medical residents were born in foreign countries.
Sayed arrived in Chicago with her parents and brother when she was three years old in search of economic opportunities. Yet although her father had applied for permanent residency for the family, he returned temporarily to Pakistan in the middle of the process for personal reasons. At age 28, Sayed is still undocumented. She discovered the implications of her status at age 17 when Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, would not allow her to pay in-state tuition, although she had been a state resident for several years. Her mother who was also undocumented was unable to co-sign a loan, but she found a family friend who helped Sayed find financing.
Sayed then learned that the majority of medical schools don’t accept undocumented immigrants. In 2012, however, she got a lucky break: The timing coincided with the creation of the DACA program, which allows nearly 800,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to legally apply for driver’s licenses, enroll in college and hold jobs. She was accepted at Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, which took a chance because of the new policy. “I felt so blessed that Loyola would give me a shot when so many other institutions wouldn’t have someone like me,” says Sayed. Although she still doesn’t qualify for financial aid, she’s been able to take advantage of the school’s partnership with the Illinois Finance Authority that created a loan program for undocumented students with the requirement that they practice in an under-served area for four years following the completion of their education. “There’s so much need out there, and I can give back,” she says.
In addition to protecting the DACA program, Sayed says she hopes Congress will pass immigration reform that gives a pathway to citizenship for the 11.4 undocumented immigrants who are currently living in the United States. “It’s so unfair that so many people are living in uncertainty and fear,” she says.
“I want to be the best psychiatrist I can be, but I feel I’m being constantly pushed back. I wish people could understand that I’m here as an aspiring doctor to help the people of the United States. My home is America.”