Imagine if you couldn’t see a doctor when you spiked a fever or noticed a lump or when your mother was having trouble breathing. Imagine you had to travel long distances or suffer through long waiting periods to get appointments for the care you need. For many, this is already an unfortunate reality, due to growing doctor shortages in certain specialties and particular regions of the country. Those of us who are all right for now may not be for long. Studies show we are trending dangerously toward a nationwide shortage over the next decade when we will be as many as 100,000 doctors short of those necessary for our health-care system to work effectively and efficiently.
Unfortunately, the doctor shortage will get worse quickly if the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is ended, as President Trump announced in early September, and appears to be pursuing apace, dashing Democrats’ hopes for a compromise.
DACA is a program that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country as children to register with the government and work legally without fear of deportation. These young people know only one home - the United States. On its own, the decision to end DACA is morally deplorable. It would wrench apart families and inflict years of trauma and instability. But the move could also be debilitating for our health-care system. DACA recipients are nurses, physician assistants, medical technicians, respiratory therapists and yes, doctors. In fact, more than 25 percent of America’s doctors are immigrants, and if DACA continues, the program will add roughly 5,400 physicians who would otherwise be ineligible to work in the United States over the next few decades.
As a doctor who was born in India and came to the United States as a child, this is a matter of personal concern to me, not just professional. My family immigrated to America via my father’s student visa when he came over in 1996 to earn a master’s degree, and we struggled to make ends meet.
After my father graduated and found a job, we moved to a new home and new community, but we still lacked permanent residency. As a high school freshman, I can still remember watching in horror as the twin towers came down on 9/11, not far from my school and my home in Long Island. Among the many impacts that this had on my community, my family faced further scrutiny, which delayed our application for permanent residency by years.
While I was in college, our application for a green card was approved, and we finally breathed a sigh of relief. No longer would we have to worry about applying for and renewing visas and paying expensive legal fees. My desire to become a doctor crystallized during these years; I hoped to become the kind of physician who could care for not only the medical problems but also the spiritual and psychosocial needs of immigrants, minorities and underserved patients.
In 2015, almost 20 years after I came to the United States, I officially became a citizen, and I’m proud to call America my home. Dreamers deserve the same chance I and so many other immigrant doctors have had. In thinking back on these days, I can say now that my family’s plight pales in comparison to the stress that DACA recipients must be feeling today.
And their loss isn’t just an issue for them. It should matter to all of us, especially if we are concerned about widespread access to quality medical care. This is particularly important with more and more doctors leaving the profession. As that trend continues, it will only exacerbate the doctor shortage, which is most acute in underserved communities - places where DACA recipients who go into the medical profession are also more likely to work.
Trump might think he’s scoring political points with his base by ending DACA. But he’s threatening to sabotage our health-care system and jeopardizing care for thousands, if not millions, in the process. If the president won’t protect them (and us), Congress must take action before this move destroys families, exiles thousands and exacerbates the growing doctor shortage threatening the American people. Ending DACA is un-American, unconscionable, and unhealthy for all of us.
Anirudh Rao is an Internal Medicine-Pediatrics physician practicing in Baltimore, Maryland.