The Important Immigration Policy Behind This Woman’s Decision To Go To Medical School

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Denisse Rojas, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant who arrived in this country when she was just six months old, has dreamed of becoming a doctor. She wants to do her part to close the health care disparities she witnessed firsthand in her community.

“I saw my family member pass away three months after being diagnosed of gastric cancer,” Rojas recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress. “She couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit. I realized how vulnerable we were. Seeing the disparities in my family and my community made me excited to be a doctor.”

Seeing the disparities in my family and my community made me excited to be a doctor.

But thanks to her status as an undocumented immigrant, Rojas’ professional goals once seemed impossible. Federal immigration law prohibits undocumented immigrants living in several states from receiving public benefits, including professional licenses. As a result, medical schools have long discouraged undocumented immigrants from applying to their programs, since students wouldn’t be able to apply for the necessary license to practice medicine. Applicants must also provide a Social Security number as proof of identity to apply for the license, which many undocumented immigrants do not have.

That all changed, however, when Rojas was granted a number through the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program allows beneficiaries to receive temporary work authorization and deportation relief.

Rojas is one of 140 people who was admitted to the prestigious Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai this semester — and one of the first two undocumented immigrants to ever be accepted into the school. Now that she’s received her white coat, she is hoping to go into primary care or emergency medicine and she plans to help the underserved immigrant population living in New York City, where her new school is located.

Brushing off criticism that people may have that she’s taking the seat away from someone else, Rojas said that she “didn’t have an advantage. I’ve earned my right to be here.” She also said that the school didn’t look at her immigration status when they accepted her, noting that Icahn also accepts international students.

Rojas pointed out that becoming a doctor may help the changing demographics of the country because there will be a need for Spanish-speaking providers. Latinos account for one-third of the uninsured population in the country and are the least likely racial or ethnic group to visit doctors. They are also the least likely to have health insurance since many work in low wage jobs or small businesses that don’t provide health insurance. Some Latinos, who are undocumented, are also shut out of healthcare access, making it very hard to see a doctor.

But if Latinos do make it to the doctor, they can also run into language barriers or cultural differences that discourage them from fully disclosing their issues. Latinos also only make up about 5 percent of the physician population and in 2011, only 15 percent of students entering medical school were black or Latino, the Atlantic reported.

Would America be a better country if she were deported?

“If you have providers that represent the population you serve, [patients] can connect and speak to you with a common language [instead of] using translators where things can get mistranslated,” Rojas said. “[Patients] can feel like [they] can share some of those experiences, which makes all the difference in the world.”

At least one other school sees the value of enrolling highly qualified, undocumented students to serve immigrant populations. Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine amended its admissions policies two years ago to include so-called DREAMers like Rojas. That school accepted seven undocumented immigrants last fall.

Some presidential candidates have broadly condemned immigrants during this election cycle, even calling for the deportation of the entire undocumented population. But as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said earlier this year when he lifted up Rojas’ life story on the Senate floor, “Would America be a better country if she were deported? Would we be better as a nation if Denisse Rojas was said to leave, ‘we don’t need you, we don’t want you.’ The fact that you spent your entire life here means nothing. The fact that you’re an exceptional student means nothing. Leave. It sounds like a harsh point of view, but it’s shared by many in Congress.”