The Senate is debating immigration legislation this week, and everything from cutting legal immigration to increasing deportations appears to be on the table. What Senators should be focusing on is passing the Dream Act.
Since Donald Trump ended the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program last fall, hundreds of Dreamers have been losing status every day, meaning they lose their ability to work and are put in danger of deportation. Unless Congress acts soon, thousands of Dreamers will begin losing status every day. This will mean that classrooms will lose their teachers, Americans who need aid will lose health care workers — and researchers performing cutting-edge science, like Yuriana Aguilar, will no longer be able to do their work.
Embodying the American dream as the daughter of undocumented farm workers, Yuriana Aguilar made history as the first Dreamer to earn a Ph.D. from UC Merced and is on the forefront of biomedical research as a postdoctoral fellow at Rush University.
UC Merced chancellor Dorothy Leland, last September lauded Yuriana and her fellow DACA recipients:
These are hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying young people who enrich our campus and our community. They are setting a positive example . . . making the lives of their families and communities better.
“I want to give back to the community”
Aguilar is among countless immigrant medical researchers in the nation who fear how the loss of DACA will jeopardize their futures. Last year, there were about 65 DACA-mented Dreamers attending medical school, with more having applied or already graduated.
When she was five, Aguilar’s parents brought her to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico, a high-risk area that is under a severe State Department travel warning, placing it on the same danger level as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
Aguilar didn’t learn about her undocumented status until applying for financial aid in high school. Through sheer tenacity, she surmounted educational roadblocks when her undocumented status left her ineligible to qualify for financial aid or loans. With her parents’ support, Aguilar graduated with a biology degree, but was ineligible to complete doctorate programs without a social security number or work permit.
She was working as an unpaid researcher in a lab when she first learned about DACA, and burst into tears when she realized what it meant for her. She applied for a doctorate program and was accepted. Last year, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) invited Aguilar to be her guest at Trump’s first joint speech to Congress.
“The only reason I did the Ph.D. was because of DACA,” Aguilar explained. “Before DACA came, I was just a volunteer.” Her farmworker parents “see the American dream fulfilling in me.”
No path for citizenship for DACA Dreamers
Aguilar’s DACA status expires in October, and she worries about how the potential loss of her status will impact her 10-year-old career. She also worries about the effects of Trump’s ongoing immigration crackdown on her family. Her husband is undocumented and she is pregnant with their second child. Aguilar is the main breadwinner of her family, and she needs Congress to take action.
“A lot of people tell me, now that you’re a doctor, become a U.S. citizen,” Aguilar confided. “People don’t understand that there is no pathway [even] for a person that has lived in the U.S. their entire lives.”
That should be a concern for all Americans, considering that thousands of American doctors, researchers, and health care workers are DACA-mented Dreamers. If they are no longer allowed to work, take care of their patients, or conduct their research, Americans both documented and undocumented will lose out. As the American Medical Association recently stated:
Removing those with DACA status will particularly create care shortages for rural and other underserved areas. DACA physicians are more likely to work in high-need areas where communities face challenges in recruiting other physicians. DACA students are also more likely to be bilingual, to come from diverse cultural backgrounds, and to understand challenges in certain ethnic communities. 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
“The prospect of life without the DACA program is one of [Dreamers’] worst nightmares,” said UC Merced Chancellor Leland. “It should be ours as well.”