The Medical Profession Has a Diversity Problem. Ending DACA Would Only Make It Worse

A fourth-year medical student works at Loyola University Chicago's Stritch School of Medicine, February 2018.

America has a shortage of doctors—and an even bigger shortage of physicians of color. That’s one reason why the potential loss of thousands of medical professionals in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could prove so devastating.

On November 12, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a set of cases challenging the legality of President Donald Trump’s efforts to terminate DACA. Since its creation, DACA has provided temporary protection from deportation and work authorization to some 825,000 undocumented young people.

A Center for American Progress analysis of the 2017 1-year American Community Survey found that there are some 27,000 DACA recipients in health care practitioner and support occupations, including physicians. But the United States is now at risk of losing the talents of this group, including a cadre of accomplished doctors and those training to become doctors—many of them people of color—if the Supreme Court allows the Trump administration to end DACA.

Twenty-nine-year-old Ali-Reza Torabi, a native of Iran, is like many DACA recipients pursuing careers in medicine who were led to the profession precisely because they or their loved ones found themselves without access to affordable medical care due to their undocumented status.

Now a first-year student at Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine, Torabi completed his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. His family settled in the United States after overstaying their travel visas and settled with relatives in San Diego when he was just 5 years old.

Torabi spent the first two and a half decades of his life without health insurance until former President Barack Obama announced the creation of DACA in 2012. His experience as an uninsured, undocumented youth helped to shape his goal of specializing in obstetrics or general medicine.

“So many people in my community—meaning the undocumented community—live with the same fear of not being able to pay expenses or the fear of going to a hospital and possibly being asked about their immigration status and getting ICE called on you,” Torabi said in an interview with the author.

“I recognized that there was a lack of health care access for a lot of my community members, and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I be the person to bridge that gap?’”

His goals—and those of other DACA recipients and their families—have been put at risk by President Trump’s effort to end DACA. Next week’s Supreme Court case could determine whether DACA recipients, who on average came to the United States at the age of 7 and have lived here for 20 years, are allowed to remain and work in the country.

Born in Saudi Arabia, Sumbul Siddiqui, 26, is currently pursuing joint degrees in medicine and a master’s degree in public health at Loyola.

Siddiqui, who arrived in the United States when she was 4 years old, holds a Pakistani passport but didn’t learn about her undocumented status until she was a teenager.

After her father fell ill with gout and her mother suffered from anemia, Siddiqui came to more fully understand the vulnerability of undocumented people seeking health care in the United States. It was an experience that awakened her to the possibility of a career in medicine.

“I want to work with communities who are the most vulnerable and who are underserved. I think being in primary care will allow me to be their first line of defense,” said Siddiqui.

“I’ve realized that people that come from lower incomes, they come to a doctor much later, and if they have a condition that could have been fixed easily … now they have to go see a specialist and use even more of the money that they have for their care,” she said.

Torabi and Siddiqui, like many DACA recipients working as physicians or studying medicine, say their experiences have inspired them to work in immigrant communities or with low-income patients, making them a vital lifeline to a historically underserved community.

Mark G. Kuczewski, a professor of medical ethics at Loyola, says that DACA recipients fill a void in a profession that too often skews toward providing care for patients who are white and well-to-do. Loyola was the first medical school in the United States to explicitly welcome applications from DACA recipients and has been a national leader in opening the door for these young people who are seeking to pursue careers in medicine. Since DACA began in 2012, the school has sent 15 recipients on to residency.

“Medicine has a diversity problem,” Kuczewski said. “We don’t have a workforce that is representative of the population that it serves, and that is to the detriment of the health outcomes … of our population. This seemed like a potential source of diversification.”

Loyola has fought for these students’ protection, occupying a prominent place in the recent Association of American Medical Colleges amicus brief sent to the Supreme Court. Terminating DACA would not only put students like Torabi and Siddiqui at risk of deportation, but it would also lead to the loss of tremendous talent that exists beyond Loyola’s campus, including throughout the medical profession.

“What sense would it make,” Kuczewski added, “to not make use of the talents of these doctors?”

Stephanie Griffith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.