One Jesuit Medical School Is Making DREAMer, M.D. A Possibility

Johana Mejias: DREAMer, future M.D. (center) CREDIT: OSCAR IZQUIERDO
Johana Mejias: DREAMer, future M.D. (center) CREDIT: OSCAR IZQUIERDO

For the first time Monday, seven undocumented immigrants started medical school with the public support of school officials and Illinois lawmakers.

Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine amended its admissions policies two years ago to include some undocumented immigrants who were granted temporary work authorization and legal presence through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The school is the only medical program to publicly call for undocumented students to apply, a move that school officials believe could bring shared experiences and bilinguism to the growing, but underserved immigrant population living in Illinois. Officials also said that it was in line with the school’s Jesuit commitment to social justice.

Due to a 1996 federal immigration law overhaul, undocumented immigrants in many states are barred from receiving public benefits, like professional licenses. As a result, many post-baccalaureate institutions — in this case, medical schools — expressly discourage undocumented immigrants from applying because the post-graduate end game would be a degree (assuredly with a massive debt) without the legal ability to practice in the country. Some schools do allow foreign students to apply, but the difference is that those students could potentially secure a work visa.

When the DACA program came into fruition, Stritch officials jumped at the opportunity to remove its program’s legal residency requirement and allowed DACA recipients, colloquially known as DREAMers, to apply. “We had no remaining reason to not provide educational opportunities to people with documents,” explained Stritch’s Dean Dr. Linda Brubaker to ThinkProgress. “Before that, we were reluctant to have DREAMers come into medical school because of the high tuition and the lack of availability of federal loans for them and the lack of their ability to work as a physician with a reasonable hope of paying the loans back. We thought that was unfair for students to incur that kind of debt with that situation. Once the executive order came out, those students were relieved of those barriers.”

Medical residency — legally considered “work” — is the ultimate obstacle for many undocumented individuals. But DACA recipients are able to overcome this barrier since they have work authorization.

“We’re tickled pink to participate in their education and provide this educational opportunity,” Brubaker said. Out of about 10,000 applicants, Stritch accepted an entering class of 100 this year. She added, “these are very highly qualified students… Some people get confused and think that this is an immigration action. This is not a political action. It is aligned with our mission to social justice and it’s central to what a Jesuit school can and will do.”

Johana Mejias, 24, one of the seven undocumented students enrolled at Stritch, told ThinkProgress that her acceptance was “a bit surreal. I had never left Colorado.” Her family legally came to the United States on a visa when she was in elementary school, but because of political unrest back in their home country of Venezuela, the family stayed in the United States. They were “unable to figure out the logistics” of legal residency and became undocumented in the process. Emphasizing that science runs in her family, Johana said that she double majored in psychology with a neuroscience specialty and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology in college. She wants to be a pediatrics doctor and recalled being the first to help her friends who suffered injuries on the playground. But her legal status always prevented her from thinking beyond college.

When a college counselor informed her that she could apply for Loyola’s medical school — “the website literally said that [they] are accepting DACA students!” — Johana put maximum effort into Stritch’s five-week, intensive summer enrichment program, aimed at preparing pre-medical students “who want to pursue a career in medicine and have a desire to advocate for underserved communities.” She was shocked since she had been living a life of limitations since high school. “It was the first time that I was able to apply to any kind of internship,” she recalled. She hopes to work in an impoverished area in Illinois, but right now, her “main focus is on the now and the now is attending medical school.”

Because she is unable to receive federal financial aid to cover the $200,000 tuition and fees for her three-year program, Johana is relying on a financing plan through the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA) that is payable after graduation. The IFA loan program allows her to pay back her tuition — interest free — only if she pledges to “provide a year of service in a designated underserved area of Illinois for each year he or she receives the loan,” per the school’s press release out Monday. If she leaves Illinois, she must pay their tuition back with a high interest rate.

In the past, Stritch officials stated that delaying the opportunities for medical education would be “to perpetuate existing injustices” that “should motivate the medical profession and medical education community to advocate for a path to citizenship for DREAMers.”

“We saw incredible talents and students were achieving at high levels and also bringing great personal qualities, often bilingual,” Dr. Mark Kuczewski, Director and Chair of Stritch’s Department of Medical Education, told ThinkProgress. Along with Brubaker, Kuczewski helped pitch the idea of enrolling undocumented medical students at the school. He said, “They’re certainly Americans and they’re bicultural. They spent most of their lives here. In some cases, this was the only country they could really remember, but they’re growing up in families that can understand the immigrant experience… we didn’t want to turn away this talent pool.”

Kuczewski insisted that DACA applicants aren’t taking seats away from anybody else since “they’re competing for slots on a level playing field. There’s no advantage.” He explained that Stritch put up a website telling qualified DACA recipients that “they’re very welcome to apply.” Shutting down critics, he said, “somehow to say that it’s unfair to let them contribute and bring the skills that they bring is crazy. There’s no special treatment. People assume that there’s some kind of an affirmative action program and it isn’t. They’re competing with everyone else.”

“As a Jesuit institution, the Catholic tradition has long been very sensitive with the problems confronting immigrants,” Kuczewski added. “There’s a natural tendency among our Catholic tradition and our values to look at what people bring in terms of their dignity and what they contribute. That got us past the thinking to see [undocumented immigrants] not as makers, but as takers. We’re just predisposed to see them as contributors — that’s really who they are.”

Jesuits are among the most fervent in pushing Congress to support humane immigration reform. Recently, more than 1,200 graduates of Jesuit institutions signed a petition to urge Congressional members who went to Jesuit schools — 43 in total including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) — to enact immigration reform. They reason that Jesuit education “stresses the ideal of being ‘men and women for others,’ with a particular commitment to those who are most vulnerable.” Another Jesuit, Pope Francis has been at the forefront of migrant rights, most recently standing up for children crossing the southern U.S. border and delivering on a promise to a 10-year-old U.S. citizen that he would talk to President Obama about immigration reform.