She walked into my office full of hope and a passion for science. She was determined to go to graduate school and focus on a research career so she could spend her life asking those questions that her natural curiosity had always sparked in her. She had outstanding grades and the fire in the belly required for research success. But after a summer of working in my lab, the reality of her life — an existence undercut by uncertain immigration status — hit her smack in the face.
Lucero was not like other students. She was a DREAMer, a minor who was not an American citizen but who had spent much of her life in the U.S. Lucero was one of the many young people who would benefit from passage of the bipartisan Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act. Among other things, the DREAM Act would allow for conditional and then permanent residency status for students like Lucero. During that time, she could apply for student loans and work-study programs and, once given permanent status, federal grants. However, while she was working in my lab, I was unable to pay Lucero with funds from federally funded grants, which brought this issue to my attention.
Students like Lucero, brought to this country by their undocumented parents while very young, grow up here and go through our public school system but encounter a firewall when attempting to access higher education. Although I was able to secure institutional funds to pay for her participation in our summer research program, the uncertainty about her future forced Lucero to re-evaluate her career plans. To help lift her family out of poverty, she decided to change her major and seek a business degree, hoping that there would be a high-paying job after graduation. Our nation had just lost a brilliant scientific mind to unfair policies that ignore the plight of the immigrant wanting to call America home.
Despite repeated revisions, the DREAM Act has never been approved by the U.S. Senate, although California and some other states do have their own versions of the act in place, most of which allow for privately funded college scholarships. In June 2012, President Barack Obama announced an expansion or reinterpretation of the DREAM Act with an executive action called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. This policy finally allows implementation of some aspects of the DREAM Act and permits some undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive renewable two-year work permits and exemption from deportation. DACA grants lawful presence in the United States; work authorization; Social Security numbers; and, in many cases, state IDs and driver’s licenses, all of which make application to medical and graduate schools possible (1, 2).
How to qualify for the DREAM Act
The following is a list of specific requirements for a person to qualify for the current version of the DREAM Act:
- Must have entered the U.S. before the age of 16
- Must have been present in the U.S. for at least 5 consecutive years prior to enactment of the bill
- Must have graduated from an American high school or have obtained a GED or have been accepted into an institution of higher education (i.e., a college or university)
- Must be between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application
- Must have good moral character
However, DACA has very rigorous provisions: Qualifying undocumented youth are eligible for a six-year-long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service. Individuals and institutions who have supported the DREAM Act believe that DACA is a vital action that will benefit the U.S. as a whole. DACA gives undocumented immigrant students who have been living in the U.S. since they were young a chance to contribute to the country that has given so much to them and a chance to use their hard-earned education and talents (3).
For all of DACA’s positives, there are still many challenges for students like Lucero. DACA students don’t qualify for federal student loans, and they can’t be appointed to the National Institutes of Health-funded training grants or pipeline programs, regardless of merit. This issue makes it hard for program directors like me to fund eager and talented students like Lucero. In addition, potential mentors essentially are discouraged from accepting these students into their labs, because it is almost impossible to find funding for them.
The NIH has very strict guidelines regarding who may be appointed to pipeline programs like the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, Research Internships in Science and Engineering, or Maximizing Access to Research Careers and regarding who may be eligible for minority supplements to research grants and training grants. According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences website, “To receive salary support from (these programs), students must be a citizen or a noncitizen national of the United States or have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence at the time of appointment.” These rules clearly exclude DACA students (4).
Unfortunately, many scientific societies that have partnered with the NIH or have their own scholarships (at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, we offer the Marion B. Sewer Distinguished Scholarship for Undergraduates) have adopted the same rules. As a member of the ASBMB’s Minority Affairs Committee, I specifically brought this question to our discussions of who should get funded. My concerns were considered very seriously. At the same time, I contacted the NIH to get some clarity and received the response, “We are discussing this issue.” It is apparent that an act of Congress will be required to overcome these obstacles. In this election season, this may be an issue that Congress refuses to address.
About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools every year (5). These students want to be treated with respect and allowed to fulfill their promise in this nation they call home. Unfortunately, they often are demonized and insulted with the title of “illegals” and live in constant fear of deportation. This is especially heartbreaking for them as they have lived in the U. S. for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized as “the people” referred to in the preamble to the Constitution.
The fate of DREAMers like Lucero, and of parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders, is currently uncertain. The Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, program, which protects parents of children born in the U.S. from deportation, in November 2014 (6). Texas and 25 other states filed a lawsuit to block DAPA in December 2014, prompting an injunction by a U.S. district judge two months later. The argument by Texas and 25 other states is that the president did not have the authority to issue the new immigration policies and that the programs violate the Constitution. High court justices heard oral arguments April 18, 2016. On June 23, the DREAMers and their families received the heartbreaking news that the Supreme Court was deadlocked (7). The court came back with a 4-4 vote on immigration, allowing the lower court ruling to stand and leaving Obama’s deportation relief plan in limbo.
The ruling could affect the growing number of graduate and medical students with DACA status across the country and jeopardize the funding invested in their training. Sixty-one medical schools now accept applications from DACA applicants. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2014 there was an eigthfold increase in medical school applicants who identified a DACA status (8).
We stand at an important juncture in our nation, lamenting the lack of diversity in STEM disciplines and in healthcare delivery. The National Science Foundation and the National Academies have recognized “the national need for a well-trained workforce in biomedical and behavioral sciences and the continuing importance of developing and maintaining a strong, vital scientific workforce whose diversity reflects that of our nation. Students from certain racial and ethnic groups, including blacks or African-Americans, Hispanics or Latinos, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, currently comprise 39 percent of the college age population (U.S. census bureau), but earn only 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 7 percent of the Ph.D.s in the biological sciences” (9). Active interventions are required to prevent the loss of talent at each level of educational advancement (10).
I posit that these DREAMers represent a pool of highly talented and motivated students that, if tapped, would go a long way to address our health inequities and disparities. As a nation, we have to weigh the benefits of allowing these students access to the same educational and training opportunities that citizens enjoy
Unfortunately, for Lucero, it is too late. When faced with the daunting task of funding her education and getting a good job after graduation, she made the only choice that made sense for her family. It broke my heart, but compelled me to write this article.
I close by quoting the civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who perfectly encapsulated my feelings about the despair and injustice faced by Lucero and others like her when he said, “We draw our strength from the very despair in which we have been forced to live. We shall endure.” It is time we acknowledge these students and grant them the respect they deserve in our nation.
Funding support and resources for DACA students
There are a few funding options for DACA students. These include:
- TheDream.US is a new multimillion-dollar National Scholarship Fund for DREAMers, created to help immigrant youth who’ve received DACA achieve their American dream through the completion of a college education.
- Catholic institutions of higher education and schools of medicine like Loyola have been at the forefront of accepting DACA students and helping to fund their education.
- States like New York, Illinois and Rhode Island offer in-state tuition to any student who meets certain criteria, like attending a local high school, regardless of immigration status. Three states — California, New Mexico and Texas — go a step farther than the rest, allowing undocumented immigrants to access state financial aid.
- The UndocuScholars Project; The Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education; University of California, Los Angeles
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