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Students in Wisconsin demonstrate in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2016.

Joe Brusky/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

Young immigrant scientists anxiously await Trump’s DACA decision

*Update, 5 September, 12:05 p.m.: Attorney General Jeff Sessions anounced today that the Trump administration will wind down the DACA program in March 2018, giving Congress a window in which to pass legislation that would formalize the program. The government will not accept any new applicants to the program, but will renew work and other permits held by those in the program that expire within the next 6 months. Here is our story that was posted before the decision was announced:

Biomedical researcher Yuriana Aguilar, a postdoctoral fellow at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois, is feverishly working to compete in the cut-throat race for a tenure-track faculty position. To catch the eye of prospective employers, she’s been trying to do the best science she can.

But Aguilar might soon have to prove she has another qualification: a legal right to work in the United States. That’s because the 27-year-old is one of an untold number of scientists and engineers who are undocumented immigrants, and have been able to get jobs and degrees thanks to a federal initiative that President Donald Trump has threatened to end.

Today, Trump said that no later than Tuesday he will announce how his administration will handle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created under former President Barack Obama. DACA enables undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to obtain renewable, 2-year work permits and avoid deportation, as long as they meet certain conditions. Trump has sent mixed signals about DACA’s future—criticizing the program during his campaign but expressing sympathy for those it covers after taking office. Earlier this summer, 10 Republican state attorneys general issued a letter threatening to sue the administration if it doesn’t end DACA by 5 September, arguing it violates the Constitution.

Aguilar, who has been living in the United States since she was 5, is just one of some 800,000 people covered by DACA. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, but before Obama created DACA in 2012, she wasn’t sure how she would be able to continue her career in the United States. She couldn’t get a Social Security number or work permit, and thus couldn’t qualify for many of kinds of financial support offered to graduate students or find employment worthy of her training.

Once DACA began, however, Aguilar qualified for university work-study programs, and she entered the quantitative and systems biology doctoral program at the University of California, Merced. She completed her Ph.D. last year, and is soon to complete her first year as a postdoc.

Now, as Trump ponders DACA’s future, Aguilar’s career plans are again in limbo. She still has a year until her next DACA work permit renewal. Even if DACA is abolished, she plans to spend as much time as she can collecting data. She’s also been saving money; in the worst case, she says she’ll move back in with her parents—with her husband and young daughter—and try to hold out until a favorable change in the political climate.

If she is forced out of her job, Aguilar says she’ll try to stay focused on writing up her research for publication and keeping up with the literature. Although she may have to pick up odd jobs to make ends meet, she’ll probably try to continue doing some research as an unpaid volunteer at a local university—as she did in the year between college and grad school. 

That's what’s at risk here, my career that I worked so hard for.

Yuriana Aguilar, Rush University

“Even though I might not be able to work legally, I could still volunteer and still be publishing and still hold on to my career,” Aguilar says. A full stop is not an option, she says, “because that's what’s at risk here, my career that I worked so hard for.”

It is not clear how many scientists, engineers, and students in related fields are facing similar uncertainties. Based on the DACA guidelines, the oldest beneficiaries are now 36 years old, and many of the recipients are in their 20s. Aguilar says she knew of just two other DACA students during her doctoral studies. The Association of American Medical Colleges says 113 students with DACA status applied to medical school in 2016; overall, it estimates there are 65 DACA students among the 83,000 medical students in the United States.

The University of Washington (UW) in Seattle says 50 to 75 of the roughly 12,000 students in its graduate and professional schools self-identify as undocumented. Fifteen to 20 of those are in science and engineering fields, says Gabriel Gallardo, UW’s associate vice president for minority affairs and diversity. At the undergraduate level, the university had 336 students who self-identified as undocumented status in the last school year, Gallardo says, and he estimates that one-third are in science and engineering fields.

DACA has enabled UW to give undocumented students financial support, including paid research experiences, Gallardo says. But if the program is ended, “we’re going to have to rethink our approach,” he says. Marisa Herrera, executive director of community building and inclusion at UW, says that rethink could even include helping undocumented students with legal fees.