NEW YORK – Denisse Rojas Marquez said without an immigration plan that the Obama administration released three years ago, granting her temporary residential status in the United States, she would not be in medical school today.
Marquez was honored on Sept. 17 at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the class of 2019’s White Coat Ceremony, a traditional welcoming event in which first-year medical students recite an oath and are given white doctor’s coats by notable members of the school’s faculty. Marquez and her fellow student, Jamil Reja, are the school’s first undocumented students ever to receive white coats. With uncertain futures, Marquez and Reja both say they hope to continue learning and eventually practicing medicine in the U.S. While their stories are unique – as not every undocumented person is able to receive higher education – Marquez and Reja said their upbringings are relatable for the estimated 11.3 million immigrants living in the United States without official citizenship.
Marquez said her parents crossed the Mexican border illegally before her first birthday. She remembers her parents’ tearful phone calls with relatives in Mexico and occasional visits to a family lawyer; but she also recalls how her mother attended community college in the San Francisco Bay Area while raising her children. In 2011, Marquez said her mother left California for Canada because she needed a surgery she could not get without healthcare in the U.S. Because of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Marquez said she has not seen her mother in more than four years. Among many specifics, this act, enacted in 1965, bans an immigrant who has been in the U.S. illegally for more than one year from re-entering for ten years if she or he leaves. Marquez said her mother’s ambition and drive encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine.
Reja said he and his parents overstayed their tourist visas when they arrived from Bangladesh before he turned three. He said his parents planned to get green cards but they did not know how to apply when they first entered the U.S. Since settling in New York more than 20 years ago, Reja said his father has continuously applied for a green card only to be repeatedly rejected.
“I think the plan was for my parents to give me and my sister – who was later born in the U.S. – a good chance of achieving the ‘American Dream,’” said Reja.
He added that his father had a stable government job in Bangladesh but chose to leave that to come to America.
Reja said that he did not know he was undocumented until he was in the eighth grade. He said that once he found out, he chose not to tell many of his friends because when he did tell them, they were shocked.
“They thought I was just a regular citizen like them,” he said. “We’re no different than anyone else. We work hard just as everyone else. We abide by laws – since coming here – just like everyone else.”
Reja said his aspiration to become a doctor started when he was young because he watched his father suffer from heart disease and have stents placed in his heart.
“That was the spark for me to become a doctor,” he said. “I wanted to learn more about disease and care for people.”
Both Marquez and Reja said they knew they wanted to be doctors at a young age, but before 2012, medical schools would not consider applicants without social security numbers indicating legal status in the country. In June 2012, President Obama granted a two-year renewable work permit and exemption from deportation to people who entered the country as children before June 2007 through an American immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It was then that Marquez and Reja said their dreams started to seem more achievable. Though not a path to citizenship, the policy provides temporary status and opportunity for Marquez and Reja.
“We’re a success story for the communities that we come from,” said Marquez. “We are the products of our families and the teachers who believed in us against all odds.”
Before coming to Mount Sinai, Marquez said, she commuted an hour to and from her undergraduate college, the University of California, Berkeley, and supported herself by working as a waitress. Reja said he earned a full tuition scholarship through the William E. Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York.
“I never let my [citizenship] status define my success,” said Reja.
“I’m really proud of both Jamil and me,” said Marquez. She added that their success plays into a larger context. “We’ve got so many people saying terrible things about immigrants.”
She was referring to Republican candidate Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals.” Trump has said DACA’s recipients “have to go,” and advocates for their deportation from the U.S.
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Senator, Marco Rubio, has also said, “At some point, DACA is gonna have to end.”
But representatives for Mount Sinai speak of Marquez and Reja with admiration.
“Denisse Marquez and Jamil Reja have determined how passionate they are,” said David Muller, Dean for Medical Education at Mount Sinai.
Muller said the experiences that Marquez and Reja bring to the school are unique compared to everyone else in their class.
“They look at the world through a completely different lens, which increases our likelihood for meaningful, dramatic change in healthcare,” said Muller.
He added he welcomes the diverse backgrounds Marquez and Reja bring to the medical field.
“We want to broaden diversity in every area,” said Valerie Parkas, Senior Associate Dean for Recruitment and Admissions. “The healthcare workforce has to reflect the community.”
Reja said he wants to give back to the neighborhoods where he grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“I would like to work in an underserved community,” Reja said. “I know how hard it is to receive medical care in these communities, so that’s something I’ll try to incorporate into my career. Medicine – at its core – is about accepting every patient no matter who they are or where they come from.”
Marquez and Reja said they do worry about their futures, given their temporary status, however, since President Obama’s executive enactment of DACA, 26 states have sued his administration to try to end it.
“It’s complicated because we don’t actually know what the next administration is going to bring,” said Parkas.
Dean Muller said he hopes the school can accept more DACA recipients in the future.
“We’re breaking a mold,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”