When she was in high school, Jennifer Mendez shadowed an interpreter who worked in the pediatric oncology wing of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the experience made her decide to become a doctor. “The thought of helping not just children, but also helping their families is what drew me in,” she says.
Born in El Salvador, Mendez came to the United States in 2000, when she was 2 years old. After a devastating 2001 earthquake, the U.S. government granted El Salvadoran nationals Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a Department of Homeland Security designation that allows those who are already in the United States and unable to return home due to unsafe conditions the right to temporarily live and work in the United States. For Mendez’s family, it was a blessing, but it also created a lot of uncertainty. TPS is granted for 6- to 18-month periods only. The government can issue extensions, but TPS in itself does not provide a route to permanent residency or citizenship.
Some of my parents’ friends went back to visit and were targeted and killed.
Mendez is attempting to live her life like most young Americans. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, and paid her way through scholarships and part-time work. While TPS recipients are eligible for in-state tuition rates at Maryland public colleges and universities, they are not eligible for federal financial aid. And it is far from certain that Mendez could obtain financial assistance for medical school, given that many assistance programs are only available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
But it is the looming expiration date of her protected status that most worries her. The Trump administration sought to end TPS for people from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Sudan, but extended the programs through Jan. 2, 2020 to comply with a judge’s order. “My biggest fear is that if the TPS is taken away, I won’t be able to finish my education,” she says. “I am proud to be from El Salvador, but my home is the United States.”
America, in turn, desperately needs young people like Mendez who want to become doctors. As our country’s 76.4 million baby boomers age, immigrants will be critical to ensuring that Americans receive the care they need. A 2016 study by the American Association of Medical Colleges projected that by 2025 the United States will be short 60,000 to 95,000 doctors, and the situation is already dire in rural areas: 135 U.S. counties do not have any practicing physicians.
On a personal level, Mendez also notes that her family would be in danger in El Salvador. “There is a lot of gang violence, and the people who have lived in the United States are targeted because gang members have the idea that we are rich,” she says. “Some of my parents’ friends went back to visit and were targeted and killed.”
For now, Mendez is trying to focus on her studies. She takes inspiration from her parents. Her father has worked long hours in construction and food service, and her mother juggled child-rearing with work in fast food, housekeeping, make-up sales, and more. “I want to repay my parents for all their hard work,” she says. “I always knew I’d have to work twice as hard because of my status, but I’ve never let it get in my way, because my parents have always told me that if I want to achieve my dreams, I can do it. Hard work speaks for itself.”
Mendez hopes that Congress will find a way for young people who came to the United States as children, as well as their parents, to gain a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship. This would keep families together, allow young people to get an education, and help whole communities make important contributions to the U.S. workforce. New American Economy estimates that TPS recipients earn nearly $7 billion in total household income and pay more than $1.3 billion in annual federal, state, and local taxes across the country. An analysis by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center found that terminating TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti alone would lead to a $45.2 billion reduction in U.S. gross domestic product and reduce Social Security and Medicare contributions by $6.9 billion over a decade.
Growing up, Mendez says she was embarrassed by her status, but the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court helped her take pride in her Latino heritage. In the future, she hopes to do the same for others and join Adelante Latina, the mentoring program that provided her with a college scholarship. “I want to show younger Latinos who are going through the same thing that I went through that it’s not impossible,” she says. “As long as you work hard and are determined, no one is going to stop you. I’ve always tried to keep that attitude.”