Mario Gonzalez is on the front line of emergency care at North Kansas City Hospital. A cardiac sonographer, Gonzales conducts ultrasounds of patients’ hearts. It is a critical diagnostic tool for cardiologists, and trained health technicians like Gonzales are in high demand as an aging population across the United States strains the healthcare system. Gonzalez is also bilingual. In addition to seeing some eight patients daily, he often helps his colleagues in other departments by translating for their Spanish-speaking patients.
Gonzalez, 23, has been in the United States since he was a 1-year-old. His family came to the United States from Mexico in 1996 seeking better economic opportunities and settled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where his father found work in construction. Although Gonzalez now now lives in Kansas City, it is South Dakota that he considers home. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I don’t even remember Mexico,” he says.
I didn’t choose to come here when I was a baby. I just want the chance to stay and do what I was meant to do.
Despite growing up in the United States, Gonzalez’s options might have been limited had it not been for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The 2012 policy defers deportation and provides work authorization for qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. “When I heard of DACA, I immediately jumped on it. DACA is your life,” he says. “It gives you your job and financial stability to build credit. It also gave me a driver’s license and a car license plate. People don’t realize what a big deal it is to have these things.”
Gonzalez was among South Dakota’s first 300 DACA recipients. With his new status, he started working at a sandwich shop, then at an oil and lube center, and then, when he was 17 years old, as a nursing assistant at a retirement facility. The income allowed him to attend the University Center in Sioux Falls, where he earned an associate’s degree in health science.
But in September 2017, the Trump administration announced it was ending DACA, and Congress has so far failed to come up with a legislative solution. Now Gonzalez lives in constant fear of losing his job. “If DACA is taken away, I can’t work or pay my bills. I’d lose my apartment and then have to move back in with my family,” he says.
Gonzalez also worries about having to give up his professional dreams. He wants to return to college and become a physician’s assistant. “Lots of doctors say I’d make a great PA. They say I’m smart enough and good with people. I’m dedicated to my job,” he says. It’s a move that would benefit American patients, who must contend with a growing shortage of primary care practitioners. To provide people with the care they need, medical facilities are increasingly relying on physician’s assistants. As a result, the number of PA jobs is projected to grow by 37 percent in the 10-year-period ending in 2026. Some of those healthcare needs could be met by Gonzalez and some of the country’s other 800,000 DACA recipients.
Gonzalez says he is in a holding pattern until the future of DACA is decided. “I’ve been saving every cent possible so I can go back to school,” he says. “Even with DACA, I still won’t be able to get financial aid. So I’ve been building credit so I can get a loan for school later.” In the meantime, he is focusing on performing well in his job. “I just want the chance to help people. People are so grateful when you’re good to them during a scary time in their lives,” he says. “I didn’t choose to come here when I was a baby. I just want the chance to stay and do what I was meant to do.”