MAYWOOD, Ill. – Rosa Aramburo sailed into her final year of medical school with stellar test scores and high marks from professors. Her advisers predicted she’d easily land a spot in a coveted residency program.
Then President Donald Trump announced the end of the Obama-era program that has issued work permits to Aramburo and nearly 700,000 other undocumented immigrants raised in the United States.
“Don’t be surprised if you get zero interviews,” an adviser told her.
She got 10, after sending 65 applications.
But as she prepared to rank her top three choices last week, Congress rejected bills that would have allowed her and other “dreamers” to remain in the United States, casting new doubt on a career path that seemed so certain a year ago.
Employers and universities that have embraced DACA recipients over the past six years are scrambling for a way to preserve the program. They are lobbying a deeply divided Congress, covering fees for employees and students to renew their permits, and searching for other legal options – perhaps a work visa or residency through spouses or relatives who are citizens. Some companies have considered sending employees abroad.
They are also awaiting the outcome of a court challenge to the Trump administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has granted the young recipients a temporary reprieve and allowed them to continue renewing work permits for the time being. The Supreme Court could decide as soon as Friday whether to intervene in the case.
Nationwide, more than 160 DACA recipients are teaching in low-income schools through Teach For America. Thirty-nine work at Microsoft, 250 at Apple and 84 at Starbucks. To employers, the young immigrants are skilled workers who speak multiple languages and often are outsize achievers. Polls show strong American support for allowing them to stay.
Based in part on that data, many DACA recipients say they believe that the United States will continue to protect them, even as a senior White House official has indicated that Trump and key GOP lawmakers are ready to move on to other issues.
Human-resources experts warn that employers could be fined or go to jail if they knowingly keep workers on the payroll after their permits have expired. And while the White House has said that young immigrants who lose DACA protections would not become immediate targets for deportation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement says anyone here illegally can be detained and, possibly, deported.
“I’ve gotten emails saying, ‘Oh, we loved you,’ ” Aramburo, 28, said one recent morning as she hurried to predawn rounds at a neurology intensive-care unit. “But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘What if I can’t finish?’ ”
Nearly 100 DACA recipients are medical students enrolled at schools such as Harvard, Georgetown and the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago, which this May will graduate its first five dreamers, including Aramburo.
Loyola, a Catholic school, changed its admissions policies to allow DACA recipients to apply soon after President Barack Obama – frustrated by Congress’ failure to pass an immigration bill – declared in 2012 that he would issue the young immigrants work permits. Trump and other immigration hard-liners criticized the program as executive overreach.
Thirty-two students with DACA are enrolled at Stritch, the most of any medical school in the country, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Most are from Mexico, but there are also students brought to the United States as children from 18 other countries, including Pakistan, India and South Korea.
The school helped the students obtain more than $200,000 apiece in loans to pay for their education. Some agreed to work in poor and rural areas with acute physician shortages to borrow the money without interest.
Mark Kuczewski, a professor of medical ethics at Loyola, said the school was inspired to launch the effort after hearing about Aramburo, a high school valedictorian who earned college degrees in biology and Spanish and yearned to study medicine but could find work only as a babysitter because she was undocumented.
He said it is unthinkable that Congress may derail the chance for her and the other DACA recipients at Loyola to become doctors and work legally throughout the United States.
“We just can’t believe that that will happen,” Kuczewski said. “Can something that irrational happen in America?”
Teach For America said its lawyers have pored over immigration laws to find ways to sponsor workers who lose their DACA protections. But the process often requires workers to leave the United States and return legally, a risk many young teachers are unwilling to take. The organization also offered to relocate teachers close to their families in the United States.
“They’re desperate. They’re stressed,” said Viridiana Carrizales, managing director of DACA Corps Member Support at Teach For America. “They don’t know if they’re going to have a job in the next few months.”
A spokesman for a major tech company who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of political negotiations, said it asked DACA employees whether they would like to be transferred to another country where their work status would not be in jeopardy.
“It fell completely flat,” he said. “The employees were polled, and with virtual unanimity, the resounding answer was a ‘No, thank you.’ They considered it giving up.”
The Society for Human Resource Management said companies can defend workers and lobby Congress on behalf of DACA recipients. But the group, which has 240 member organizations, is also urging employers to consider what might happen if their employees’ work permits expire.
“The bottom line is, if people don’t have documents that allow them to work in the United States, they have to be taken off the payroll,” said Justin Storch, a federal liaison for the society.
On the snow-covered campus at Loyola University Chicago, medical students with DACA permits say they are continuing with their studies and renewing their work permits even as they keep one eye on Washington.
Cesar Montelongo, 28, a third-year medical student who attended the State of the Union address last month, spent part of one recent day examining bacteria in petri dishes in a school laboratory. His family fled a violent border city in Mexico when he was 10.
He is earning a medical degree and a PhD in microbiology, a high-level combination that could land him plenty of jobs in other countries. But he said he prefers the United States, one of “very few places in this planet you can actually achieve that kind of dream.”
Less than a mile away, Alejandra Duran, a 27-year-old second-year medical student who came to the United States from Mexico at 14, translated for patients at a local clinic for people with little or no insurance.
With help from teachers in Georgia, she graduated from high school with honors. She wants to return to the state as a doctor and work to help lower the rate of women dying in childbirth.
“A lot of things have been said about how illegal, how bad we are; that’s not the full story,” Duran said. “We’re not just farmworkers or housekeepers. We’re their doctors. We’re their nurses, their teachers, their paramedics.”
During rounds at the Loyola University Medical Center, Aramburo studied computer records, then examined stroke victims and patients with spinal and head injuries. Some may never regain consciousness, but she always speaks to them in the hope that they will wake up.
“That’s my dream: to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “I hope I can do it.”
In the glass-walled neurology intensive care unit, she and two physicians stood before a 45-year-old stroke victim who spoke only Spanish. The woman struggled to grasp what the two doctors were saying.
Aramburo stepped forward.
“You’ve had a small stroke,” she explained in Spanish, as the woman listened. “It could have been a lot worse. Now we’re going to figure out why.”