In 1993, when I was 3 years old, my family left Pakistan for the United States. My parents were searching for a brighter, safer future and better educational opportunities for their children. All of that came true for me, but now it is being threatened by President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives young undocumented immigrants — often called Dreamers — the right to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.
I’m now working in my dream job as a psychiatrist in a hospital and Veterans Health Administration clinic just outside Chicago. It’s a career I chose after overcoming a great deal of hardship, including an impoverished childhood. It allows me to give back to the country I now call home. But though I’m filling a critical labor gap in the health care workforce, I worry that my days here may be numbered.
This month marks the two-year anniversary of the president’s DACA decision. Later this fall, the Supreme Court will weigh whether Trump’s move to end DACA was lawful, putting my future, and that of 800,000 others like me, in the hands of nine judges.
We could have had a legislative solution by now. In June, the House of Representatives passed with tremendous bipartisan support the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship. We need the Senate to follow suit.
Without the protection offered by the act, Dreamers’ futures and their contributions to this country will be at risk. No longer would I be able to help my patients, including many veterans, find emotional stability and peace of mind.
This comes at a time when skills like mine are needed more than ever. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans need treatment for issues like anxiety or depression, yet more than 40% of them never receive care. The situation is especially dire in rural counties, 80% of which lack a single psychiatrist. Some of my patients drive hours to see me, while others must wait months for an appointment.
The work of therapists like me matters. I recently met a patient who had refused his primary care doctor’s recommendation to undergo treatment for alcohol addiction. I sat with him, gave him space to share his story, then gently explained the importance of recovery and how treatment would help him address his mental and physical addiction to alcohol. He told me about his wife and children, and how he often felt like a burden on his family. He wanted to get better and stay sober so he could return to work and provide for them. He eventually enrolled in long-term outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse that could save his life and restore his family.
Dreamers like me didn’t have a choice about being undocumented residents of the United States. We came with our parents, who made the decision to come here. When my family moved to the U.S., we applied for asylum and followed all the rules. But when my father left our family, unbeknownst to us some of the paperwork requesting that we appear for asylum interviews disappeared with him.
My undocumented status disqualified me from in-state tuition, so I was forced to rely on loans from my mom and family friends to complete college. My status would have prevented me from being accepted to medical school. But when DACA emerged in 2012, it opened a world of opportunities. I was accepted at three medical schools, and enrolled in Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine.
After Trump’s decision to end the program, I almost wasn’t accepted into a residency program, since employers were wary of hiring someone who might get deported mid-program. Fortunately, I matched at Loyola University Medical Center, which openly and actively welcomes DACA recipients.
Deporting Dreamers makes no sense, especially at a time when the U.S. population is aging and health care workers are needed. Dreamers like me are doers. We work hard and contribute economically. There are more than 62,000 of us in Illinois alone, 94% of whom hold jobs, according to research by New American Economy.
Dreamers like me shouldn’t have to wait for the Supreme Court to render a decision on DACA. Congress should pass the American Dream and Promise Act and give us a pathway to citizenship. It would benefit not just the Dreamers but also the health care system and all of the other sectors of the country we contribute to.
Aaima Sayed, M.D., is a psychiatrist at Loyola Hospital and Hines VA Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.