CHICAGO – The past few years have been an emotional roller coaster for Belsy Garcia Manrique.
The 26-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala studied biology, chemistry and math at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, with little hope of becoming a doctor, her dream job.
Then, in 2012, President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gave hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people like Manrique who came to the U.S. as children access to work permits in the United States and a two-year, renewable reprieve from deportation. While it was not a path to citizenship, they could live openly and start careers that matched their potential.
“It was exciting,” said Manrique, who speaks with a warm Southern drawl. “It was that feeling of, things are going to change, they’re going to get better.”
Now in her second year at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Manrique is once again filled with uncertainty. While campaigning, Donald Trump pledged to dismantle DACA. He has since said he’ll “work something out” for people covered by DACA. But amid reports of immigration sweeps and the arrest of at least one DACA recipient, many of the nation’s 750,000 DACA beneficiaries are nervous.
The United States is home to some 11 million undocumented immigrants. Though many escaped violence and persecution, particularly in Central America, seeking asylum is not an option if they’ve been in the country longer than one year.
Many DACA recipients – also known as “dreamers” after the DREAM Act, a failed federal legislative proposal to legalize their status – grew up studying hard in school, wanting to believe that academic success would somehow earn them legal status one day. Meanwhile, their parents lived and worked in the shadows.
Now they worry they might get caught in Trump’s immigration dragnet and deported to dangerous countries they hardly know.
“I got too safe and complacent” after DACA, said Manrique, who arrived in the United States when she was seven years old and recalls her mother pulling her across the Rio Grande River in a floating tire. “This election burst that bubble.”
“I’m just trying to prepare for the worst,” she added.
Manrique’s school, Loyola Stritch, currently has 28 undocumented medical students, more than any other program in the country. About 70 undocumented students are enrolled in medical schools nationwide, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Loyola Stritch was one of the first programs to actively recruit undocumented applicants after DACA was introduced. This is in line with the university’s Jesuit tradition of openness, said Mark Kuczewski, who chairs Loyola Stritch’s department of medical education. It also serves a practical purpose, he added, whereby undocumented students can eventually help fill the United States’ projected shortage of up to 90,400 physicians by 2025.
Loyola Stritch’s first class of DACA enrollees, who matriculated in 2014, are completing their clinical rotations in teaching hospitals. But if DACA is revoked and they lose their work authorization, they will not be able to start medical residencies and move to the next stage of their career.
Many of the students finance their medical education through hundreds of thousands of dollars in private loans – and if they can’t work as doctors, there’s little chance they’ll be able to pay it back.
“These young people are social capital,” said Kuczewski, a bioethics professor. “They’re ambitious, they’re all at least bilingual and bicultural, and they’re incredibly well-suited to serving patient populations that are underserved.”
Manrique’s classmate, Cesar Montelongo, was 10 years old when his family fled to the United States to escape drug-cartel turf wars in their hometown of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the world’s most dangerous cities. They crossed the U.S. border legally and overstayed their tourist visas.
It took more than a decade for a family-sponsored visa application submitted by Montelongo’s American uncle to be approved, by which time Montelongo and his sister were too old to qualify as part of the family.
A joint MD-PhD candidate in Loyola Stritch’s highly competitive program, Montelongo says that without DACA his only option to legalize his status would be to apply for a visa through his younger brother, who was born in the United States. This will take about 20 years at current rates. By then, Montelongo would be nearly 50, and he could face deportation in the meantime.
“There is so much good I can do in that time,” said Montelongo, whose bioinformatics research is aimed at developing tools for more personalized medicine through genome sequencing and transcription. “It’d be a loss not to perform to my potential until 20 years from now.”
Both Manrique and Montelongo said they were drawn to medicine because their undocumented status meant their families went without health insurance. They couldn’t afford to see doctors until their illnesses were too severe to ignore.
Growing up in Calhoun, Georgia, Manrique feared random daytime phone calls that could signal trouble for her undocumented parents.
The dreaded call finally came in 2011. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested Manrique’s father at their home and detained him after they raided employment records at the carpet factory where he worked. A lawyer saved him from deportation.
With Trump’s recent executive actions on immigration, Manrique said, “I’m worried about my parents all the time. It’s terrifying.”
Two days before Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven countries and halting refugee resettlement, which is currently suspended by the courts, the U.S. president issued another order that has caused widespread alarm among undocumented immigrants.
The January 25 order greatly expands the definition of who is considered a criminal and therefore a target for deportation. It prioritizes removal of undocumented immigrants who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” regardless of whether they’ve been charged or convicted of a crime.
Even if Trump does not end the DACA program, hundreds of DACA beneficiaries could be subject to deportation under the expanded definition, said attorney Leon Fresco, who headed the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Immigration under President Obama. At particular risk are DACA recipients with outstanding orders of removal from the country. Any run-in with the law they might have had, however minor, could endanger their reprieve from deportation under DACA.
“There is a 100 percent guarantee that some will have their DACA status revoked and they’ll be deported,” Fresco said. “It could happen any moment.”
Universities, municipal governments and workplaces across the country are setting up legal defense funds and hotlines to protect undocumented people from deportation. Loyola Stritch brought in an immigration lawyer to speak with students about their rights.
Meanwhile, the American Medical Association and Loyola Stritch are lobbying for a bipartisan bill that would grant temporary legal status to DACA beneficiaries if Trump does away with the program.
“DACA is inherently a short-term solution,” Montelongo said. “And now there’s really going to be no long-term solution. Staying in this limbo is the best we can hope for.”