I'm a Mailman Dreamer
Before I tell my story, I would like to acknowledge that my story is a familiar one to many undocumented immigrants in the United States. With the current political climate regarding immigrants in Congress, I only aim to share my experience and not contribute to the positive and negative immigrant rhetoric that is present today.
I was born in Oaxaca, México to parents who owned a small farm and family chocolate business. When I was only 4 months old, we emigrated to the United States, and while I am what is commonly referred to as a “Dreamer,” in reality, my dreams are built on the dreams of my parents: the original Dreamers. My father always dreamt of pursuing a higher education, and to one day be an engineer. My mother taught her children the values of hard work, humildad (humbleness), and family. Together, they sacrificed their dreams to allow me to pursue mine in a country that was foreign to them.
Fast forward 22 years to February 8, 2017, the day that I received my acceptance letter from the Mailman School of Public Health. It has been a little over a year since that life-changing day and I still remember reading the acceptance email in Powell Library at UCLA, where I was finishing my last year as an undergraduate student. As I reflect on my life since that day, I realize that my passion for public health arose from my undocumented immigrant identity and involvement in student activism.
Since California’s 1994 Proposition 187 policy, undocumented immigrants have been banned from receiving government benefits and non-emergency health services in the United States. In addition, the Affordable Care Act currently prevents 11 million undocumented immigrants from obtaining health insurance. From personal experience, I know many of my family members and friends in the Coachella Valley where I grew up are too afraid to seek a primary care practitioner because of fear of deportation, and not having a health care provider that speaks Spanish who understands the struggles of being undocumented.
My own identity is a driving force in my passion to pursue public health and my dream to one day address these issues in the Coachella Valley and beyond by combining public health and medicine as a physician.
A 2014 research article from UCLA faculty estimates that up to 5,400 DACA-eligible students could matriculate into medical schools in the coming decades, which could potentially alleviate the increasing physician shortage in the United States by over 30,000 potential and new physicians. In these numbers, I see myself: after graduating from Mailman, I plan to attend medical school and train to become a culturally competent physician. I want to combine public health and medicine in practice by developing a community health program that advocates for equitable health policies aimed at increasing access to primary care and mental health services in Latino immigrant communities like those in the Coachella Valley.
Things are changing. Since the enactment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action in 2012, eligible undocumented immigrant students like myself are in a better position to obtain funding for higher education. Many of us are the first in our families to attend a four-year university and we share the desire to use education to go back to our communities and improve the health systems there.
My journey at Mailman has been filled with new experiences and opportunities that have changed my life. Here, I have used my privilege as a Columbia graduate student to share my story through actions and protests as a means of raising awareness on the issue of undocumented immigrants in the United States. As a way of telling my story and giving a face to Dreamers, I have appeared on Univision, Telemundo, the Dutch TV news network RTL Nieuws, and in the pages of People En Espanol. I have also launched a GoFundMe campaign to educate people about what it means to be an undocumented student and to crowdfund for my remaining years of graduate school.
The future of DACA is uncertain and I know that each day as Congress fails to pass immigration reform, more and more DACA recipients lose protection from deportation. I fear that current immigration negotiations in Congress will lead to a border wall along the U.S. – México border or more stringent deportation policies for others that will further lead to the separation of families and the lack of opportunities for people like myself.
There is no easy solution, but I will continue to share my story of resiliency and determination as a DACA student. Whatever the outcome, I am hopeful that others and myself are able to make their dream a reality.
Hector Sanchez Perez is a first-year Sociomedical Sciences MPH student. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA in 2017.