As a biology and psychology major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I’m pursuing a career in medicine to treat children in underserved communities who lack access to care. But I’m also in a race against time — taking extra credits and registering for summer school, on top of working two part-time jobs and volunteering at a local hospital.
I’ve signed up for this intense schedule because the Trump administration has threatened to end my right to stay in the United States. I was born in El Salvador and have been a legal U.S. resident since I was three years old. After a 2001 earthquake created chaos in my country, the U.S. government granted Salvadorans a temporary status that allows foreign nationals facing unsafe conditions in their home countries to live and work here. But that designation could expire as early as January 2020, even as the situation in El Salvador remains so dangerous that the U.S. State Department advises against traveling to the country. If my worst fears came true, I’d have to quit my jobs and lose my eligibility for in-state tuition fees. In short, I’d have to drop out of college and watch all my hard work — and the investment this country has made in me — go down the drain.
That’s why I’m glad members of Congress recently introduced bills in the House and the Senate that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the more than 318,000 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders from conflict-ridden countries — including Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan — that also experienced war or environmental disasters.
The two new bills — the Dream and Promise Act and the SECURE Act — not only recognize that enabling TPS holders to remain in the country is not just the right thing to do on a humanitarian level, it’s also what’s best for the country. According to New American Economy (NAE), immigrants play an essential role in the U.S. labor force in sectors that range from hospitality to technology. Our role is particularly critical in the health care field, which faces a dramatic and persistent shortage of qualified professionals. Currently, 135 U.S. counties lack a single physician, and as the nation’s 76.4 million baby boomers continue to age, the problem is expected to grow worse. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects that by 2030 demand for physicians could exceed supply by as much as 121,000. Immigrants are filling this gap; they are nearly 28 percent of the nation’s physicians and surgeons, 16 percent of registered nurses and nearly 11 percent of physician assistants, says NAE.
Initially, I planned to become a physician, but the current political uncertainty has caused me to switch to a physician assistant career track. This would enable me to start working sooner and reduce the risk that a status change would leave me stuck in a degree program I couldn’t afford. Physician assistants do much of the same work as doctors — such as diagnosing, managing treatment plans and prescribing medications — and they play a key role in helping to address the nation’s looming health care crisis.
Of course, if TPS for Salvadorans is not renewed, more than my career is at risk. If my parents and I were forced to return to El Salvador, we’d have to leave behind my 4-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother, who were born here and are U.S. citizens. We wouldn’t take them because the country is still so dangerous. My family is still grieving the family friends who were murdered there while visiting a couple of years ago.
It’s all very stressful to think about, so I mostly stay focused on getting my degree. In addition to my schoolwork and my jobs, I also volunteer in the neonatal unit at St. Agnes Hospital. I love caring for the babies, holding them, and making sure they have nice blankets and other supplies. I’m also inspired by the capable and kind nursing staff who have shown me what a difference a good health care provider can make in a patient’s life. I hope to join them soon. I want to repay the investment this country has made in me, and I want my family to stay together. That’s why I’m urging Congress to protect those of us who have found safe harbor in the land of liberty.
Jennifer Mendez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior at UMBC.