Pakistani immigrant Aaima Sayed has always been fascinated by mental health. It is a passion that drove her to succeed in college and medical school even though her undocumented status disqualified her for state and federal financial aid, forcing her to take out private loans and depend on the sacrifices of family members. 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. If the program ends, she might not be eligible to complete her psychiatry residency, a requirement for medical certification.
Sayed has already received far fewer requests for residency interviews than her colleagues have. “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, and to Americans across the country in need of treatment.
Currently more than half of U.S. counties lack even a single practicing psychiatrist, and, given that one-quarter of psychiatrists practicing in the United States are already over the age of 65 and facing retirement, the number of Americans who don’t have ready access to mental healthcare is only expected to grow. If the country wants to meet the minimum federal standards of care, it will have to add some 4,870 psychiatrists by the year 2020. DACA-eligible medical students like Sayed may be critical to filling the gap in a system that would already be far more short-staffed without foreign-born medical practitioners. In 2015, nearly a third of all psychiatrist positions in the United States were filled by doctors who graduated from a foreign medical school.
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.
When Sayed was 3 years old, her family moved to Chicago in search of economic opportunities. Although her father had applied for permanent residency, he had to return temporarily to Pakistan before the family was approved. Now in her late 20s, Sayed is still undocumented. She discovered the implications of her status when she prepared to attend Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, and discovered that she was not eligible to receive in-state tuition even though she had been a state resident for several years. Nor could her mother, who was also undocumented, co-sign a loan. A family friend eventually helped Sayed find financing.
It was then that Sayed learned that most medical schools wouldn’t even accept undocumented immigrants, who, without work permits, can’t qualify for residency training programs upon graduation. In 2012, however, she got a lucky break, when President Barack Obama created DACA, which allows 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.
Sayed was admitted to the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “I felt so blessed that Loyola would give me a shot when so many other institutions wouldn’t have someone like me,” she says. Although she still doesn’t qualify for financial aid, she has been able to take advantage of the school’s partnership with the Illinois Finance Authority, which requires undocumented students to practice in an underserved area for four years after graduation. “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 estimated 11.4 million 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.”