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Medical Students in Limbo as Young Immigrant Program Ends

Zarna Patel poses for a portrait at the Loyola University Medical
Zarna Patel poses for a portrait at the Loyola University Medical School in Maywood, Ill, Patel, a third year student

Chicago, October 21: Medical students such as Alejandra Duran  Arreola are trying to shape the debate, and they have the backing of influential medical groups, including the American Medical Association.

Arreola dreams of becoming an OB-GYN in her home state of Georgia, where there’s a shortage of doctors and one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the U.S.

But the 26-year-old Mexican immigrant’s goal is now trapped in the debate over a program protecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants like her from deportation. Whether she becomes a doctor depends on whether Congress finds an alternative to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Donald Trump phased out last month.

Arreola, who was brought to the U.S. illegally at age 14, is among about 100 medical students nationwide who are enrolled in DACA, and many have become a powerful voice in the immigration debate. Their stories have resonated with leaders in Washington. Having excelled in school and gained admission into competitive medical schools, they’re on the verge of starting residencies to treat patients, a move experts say could help address the nation’s worsening doctor shortage.

“It’s mostly a tragedy of wasted talent and resources,” said Mark Kuczewski, who leads the medical education department at Loyola University’s medical school, where Arreola is in her second year. “Our country will have said, ‘You cannot go treat patients.’”

The Chicago-area medical school was the first to openly accept DACA students and has the largest concentration nationwide at 32. California and New York also have significant populations, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

DACA gives protection to about 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and who otherwise would lack legal permission to be in the country. The immigrants must meet strict criteria to receive two-year permits that shield them from deportation and allow them to work.

Then-President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012. Critics call it an illegal amnesty program that is taking jobs from U.S. citizens. In rescinding it last month, Trump gave lawmakers until March to come up with a replacement.

Public support for DACA is wide. A recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that just 1 in 5 Americans want to deport DACA recipients.

Arreola took a break from her studies last month to travel to Washington with fellow Loyola medical students and DACA recipient Cesar Montelongo Hernandez to talk to stakeholders. In their meetings with lawmakers, they framed the program as a medical necessity but also want a solution for others with DACA.

A 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a shortfall of between about 35,000 and 83,000 doctors in 2025. That shortage is expected to increase with population growth and aging.

Hernandez, a 28-year-old from Mexico simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D., wants to focus his research on early detection of diseases. His work permit expires next September, and he’s worried he won’t qualify for scientific research funding without the program.

“I’ve shown I deserve to be here,” said Hernandez, who met with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who’s called for Congress to quickly pass a replacement for DACA.

For Arreola it’s about returning to the state she’s called home since she was 14 and giving back to areas in need of doctors.

“My family is from there; I know those people,” Arreola said. “Those are the people that inspired to really give this a push.”

Among those Arreola met with were policy staff for Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who believes the Obama program was “an overreach of executive power” but also wants Congress to write a plan to protect DACA recipients.

Medical school administrators say the immigrant medical students stand out even among their accomplished peers: They’re often bilingual and bicultural, have overcome adversity and are more likely to work with underserved populations or rural areas.

“They come with a cultural competency for how to best treat the individuals from their background, whether immigrants or different races and ethnicities,” said Matthew Shick, a government relations director for the Association of American Medical Colleges. “That gets translated over to their peers in education and training.”

Zarna Patel, 24, is a third-year student at Loyola who was brought to the U.S. from India as a 3-year-old without any legal documents. Her DACA permit expires in January, and she’s trying to renew it so she can continue medical school rotations that require clinical work. If she’s able to work in U.S., Patel will work in disadvantaged areas of Illinois for four years, part of her agreement to get school loans.

“Growing up, I didn’t have insurance,” she said. “I knew what that felt like, being locked out of the whole system.”

For others, there’s added worry of being stuck with debt they can’t repay.

Marcela Zhou, who was born in Mexico after her family moved there from China, is in her third year at the University of California at Los Angeles’ medical school. She wants to work in public health.

“Can I even afford to finish medical school?” said Zhou, who was 12 when she came to the U.S. on a visitor visa that eventually expired. “It’s sort of hard sometimes to keep going.”(VOA)

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DNA Testing To Bring Together Separated Families

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families

An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018.
An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018. VOA

When kidnappers assaulted a woman on a Guatemala City street and ripped her infant daughter from her arms, DNA testing came to the rescue. A positive match helped reunite mother and child after the baby turned up abandoned at a church with no identification.

In addition to identifying kidnap victims, DNA tests have helped connect adoptees with their biological parents and U.S. immigrants with their families.

Now, DNA technology is being called upon to bring together families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrants’ advocates, however, say using genetic testing in this way raises technical, legal and ethical issues.

While several companies have offered to donate kits, leading migrant rights groups have turned them down.

Missing children

Genetic tests have helped an organization called DNA-Prokids reconnect more than 1,000 missing children with their families in Mexico, Nepal, Thailand and several other countries, including the kidnapping case in Guatemala City.

Jose Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Granada in Spain, started the organization. Lorente said he was moved by the children he saw on the streets in cities around the world. Many were victims of trafficking and had parents who were looking for them.

Lorente said he hopes to establish a worldwide network of DNA testing labs to help children everywhere.

“This is a way to send a message to people trafficking children,” he said. “The message is, from now on, it is not going to be so easy to steal and traffic a child because he or she will be immediately identified.”

Border tests

Lorente said DNA tests could help make sure children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border are not being trafficked.

“It’s going to be a small percentage,” Lorente said, but added there may be cases in which ill-intentioned adults claim children who are not their own.

U.S. officials already use DNA tests to confirm that immigrants seeking to join relatives in the United States are related.

A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018.
A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018. VOA

Genetic testing led the U.S. State Department to suspend a refugee program in 2008. Suspecting fraud in the family reunification program, officials tested about 3,000 applicants, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia. They confirmed a parental connection in less than 20 percent of the cases.

The program restarted in 2012, requiring a DNA test to prove that a parent and child are related.

New technology could enable those tests to be conducted at the border in as little as 90 minutes. Law enforcement agencies are evaluating rapid DNA tests that can match a person in police custody to a database of known criminals. The same technology could be used to test migrants.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families separated at the border.

That followed offers from two ancestry companies, 23andMe and MyHeritage, to donate their technologies to the effort.

Privacy concerns

“Who’s going to keep that information?” asked communications manager Fernanda Durand with the migrant rights group CASA. She is worried the government could use migrants’ genetic fingerprints later without their consent.

“It’s very troubling,” she said.

Standard DNA tests can only reliably identify parent-child and sibling relationships. In refugee situations, advocates say, it’s not unusual for someone other than a child’s biological parent to care for him or her — for example, if a parent has been killed or detained.

The ancestry companies’ tests look at much more genetic information than standard DNA tests and can identify broader relationships; but, they can also generate much more sensitive data, including health information, and that would need to be protected. These tests also are not certified for this purpose by the organization that accredits DNA testing labs.

Plus, “Most of these migrants probably don’t have a high school education and have never encountered DNA in their lives,” noted genetic counselor Kayla Sheets, founder of Vibrant Gene Consulting. “How can they give informed consent [to be tested] if they don’t understand the technology?”

“This is a very, very vulnerable population,” Sheets added, and extra safeguards need to be in place when dealing with their genetic information. “And I’m just not certain that these companies, nor quite frankly the government, [are] quite set up for that yet.”

23andMe and MyHeritage say they are sensitive to the privacy concerns and will offer the tests only to legal aid groups working with migrant families.

Those groups have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” according to communications director Jennifer Falcon at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Separating parents from their children is bad enough, she said.

Also read: Trump Calls For Deporting Illegal Immigrants With No Court Hearings

“We don’t believe you can solve one civil rights violation by creating another potential violation with their privacy,” Falcon added. (VOA)