As a child in southern Florida, Zarna Patel never got to see a doctor. Her parents, undocumented immigrants from India, had college degrees from their homeland, but in the United States had to work low-wage jobs without health insurance. Besides, doctor’s offices didn’t seem safe. “I was always scared that it would be discovered that I was undocumented,” Patel says.
Now, motivated by that childhood experience, Patel is studying to become a doctor, and she wants to work as a primary care physician in underserved communities. Patel’s goal is to return to her home in Florida and start a nonprofit serving people who lack vital nutrition and mental health services. “I’m worried about my parents getting older and needing preventative care or specialists,” she says. “Undocumented people pay taxes but don’t get access to services like Social Security or Medicare.”
Before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), it was highly unlikely that an undocumented immigrant such as Patel would be able to attend medical school in the United States. The 2012 policy, however, allows DACA recipients — more than 800,000 young people brought to the United States as children have enrolled — to receive both the loans they need to attend medical school and the work permits they need to complete their medical residencies. The American Medical Association (AMA) estimates that DACA could introduce 5,400 previously ineligible physicians into the U.S. health system in coming decades. “Before DACA, medical schools weren’t even accepting undocumented students,” says Patel. “There was no way in.”
If you give us a chance, we can show you what we can do for the United States. All I want is to be a doctor to help all of us.
Meanwhile, the AMA estimates that the United States could see a shortage of 94,700 physicians by 2025, and notes that DACA-eligible medical students are more likely to fill critical gaps in rural and other underserved areas. “Without these physicians, the AMA is concerned that the quality of care provided in these communities will be negatively impacted and that patient access to care will suffer,” AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders in September 2017, after President Donald Trump announced he would end DACA unless Congress created a permanent solution for the so-called Dreamers.
Patel was admitted to the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in 2013. Although DACA did not make her eligible for financial aid, she was able to take out loans through the school’s partnership with the Illinois Finance Authority, which requires that undocumented medical students practice in an underserved area for four years after graduation. Any revocation of DACA, however, could derail Patel’s plans. Now approaching graduation, she must be legally eligible to work in the United States to qualify for a medical residency program — a requirement for medical certification.
Patel would like to see immigration reform that creates an expanded DACA program, one that includes a work visa for the parents of DACA recipients and that expands the age eligibility. Currently, only those who were 31 or younger on June 15, 2012, are eligible. She would also like to see a pathway to citizenship created for the estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States. “We’ve been waiting so long already,” she says. Not only would immigration reform allow students like Patel to realize their professional dreams, it would also help alleviate America’s physician shortage.
Patel struggles to stay positive in the face of so many institutional roadblocks. “The emotional toll is pretty heavy,” she says. “People don’t understand what it’s like to have a life here and think of this country as your home and have your basic existence threatened. If you give us a chance, we can show you what we can do for the United States. All I want is to be a doctor to help all of us.”