'Weight Back On My Shoulders:' Young DACA Doctor Awaits Supreme Court Ruling

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Oscar Hernandez became the first DACA recipient to graduate from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. Hernandez took part in the school's first "Drive-Thru" commencement ceremony held on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Irvine, Calif.  (Jordan Strauss/AP Images for University of California, Irvine)

Oscar Hernandez grew up undocumented in a trailer park in San Diego. He was the first in his family to attend college, and he worked long shifts selling tacos to pay for tuition. But his goal of becoming a doctor motivated him to push through many challenging years. Last Saturday, he graduated from the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.

“That was my dream ever since I can remember,” Hernandez, 31, said. “Finally getting on that little podium to graduate as a doctor, that was a really great moment for me.”

Because of social distancing rules, it was a drive-through celebration at the school’s parking lot. A giant screen broadcast images of the 92 graduates as they took turns stepping out of their cars and onto a stage to be hooded. Loved ones, who were told to remain in their vehicles with the windows rolled up, honked from afar.

“It was kind of cool, like a drive-in movie theater,” said Hernandez, grateful for the non-virtual ceremony. “It was actually in person as much as it could be.”

Oscar Hernandez is flanked by his father Juan, mother Ana, and brother Daniel on graduation day on May 30, 2020 in Irvine, Calif. (Courtesy of Oscar Hernandez)

This week, Hernandez moved from California to Ohio to train as a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the top hospitals in the country. He plans to return to the Golden State to work in low-income communities, like the one where he grew up.

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All those plans could come to a halt with a highly anticipated decision by the U.S. Supreme Court this month on the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA. The Obama-era program protects Hernandez and nearly 200,000 other undocumented Californians from deportation.

Supreme Court Ruling Expected Soon

The Trump administration maintains the protections, granted to young adults brought to the U.S. as children, were unlawfully established and must be terminated.

In 2017, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions rescinded the program, which allows nearly 650,000 people nationwide to legally work. The state of California, the University of California, DACA recipients and others sued, and the legal battle made its way to the Supreme Court.

If a majority of the nine justices side with President Donald Trump, nearly 30,000 DACA recipients who are frontline health workers nationwide may be at risk of deportation, at a time when they are critically needed during the pandemic.

California already faces a shortage of doctors, especially in Latino and other low-income communities that are now disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Hernandez fears that if he loses his DACA work authorization, he won't be able to complete his 5-year residency and practice medicine in the U.S.

Even as he celebrates his graduation and gets ready to start his general surgery residency, he's waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court decision that could determine his fate.

"It feels like a weight has been put back on my shoulders," said Hernandez, the first DACA recipient to graduate from UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Every time I accomplish something, this voice in the back of my head says 'Oh, after all this, it could all get frozen again.'"

The Journey to Becoming a Doctor

Hernandez was 18 months old when his parents brought him to San Diego from the Mexico City area. His mom cleaned houses and his dad served food at banquets. The couple eventually opened a party rental business that allowed the family to move out of the trailer park in the city's southeast and buy a house in the Skyline Hills area.

But the family lost their business and home during the Great Recession, and they had to move once again. Hernandez said he ended up living in his friend’s living room for “a long time.” His parents, who had helped him pay for college, could no longer do so.

As an undocumented person, Hernandez wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid and most scholarships, which require a social security number. In 2010, he dropped out of UC San Diego to work at a taqueria and laundromat. That helped him pay about $9,000 in college tuition he owed, he said.

Hernandez faced other obstacles as well. Some medical schools do not accept undocumented students, he said, while residency training programs — necessary to get licensed as a doctor — require work authorization, which he didn't have.

“At that point, I was chasing a dream without a way to actually achieve it,” he said.

In 2012, when then-President Barack Obama announced the DACA program, it opened up new doors for Hernandez and thousands others.

After signing up for the program, Hernandez was able to qualify for financial aid, volunteer at a hospital and graduate from college. He could apply to medical schools, and for the first time in his life — he could legally work.

Dean Michael J. Stamos from the University of California, Irvine's School of Medicine, presides over the 2020 Commencement ceremony, held Saturday May 30, 2020, in Irvine, Calif. (Jordan Strauss/AP Images for University of California, Irvine)

“DACA really was the biggest relief in my life,” he said. “I was finally liberated to actually do the things that I wanted to do.”

He's carried his past experience of 11-hour shifts in low-wage jobs, and translated it into his medical studies. Compared to working all day on his feet at a taco shop, medical school was "not as hard," he said.

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“That’s the perspective I took to medical school. And I think with all those things that I learned throughout my life, it led me to be accepted at the Cleveland Clinic," he said.

As he stood in his empty apartment, getting ready to board his flight to Cleveland, Hernandez said he has to remain optimistic that the court will allow DACA recipients to pursue their dreams in the country they call home.

When then-President Obama unveiled DACA in 2012, he said the new policy was a "temporary fix" while Congress debated more permanent legalization for so-called Dreamers, but this never materialized.

Hernandez hopes DACA remains a “stepping stone” to wider immigration reform that allows more than 10 million undocumented people in the U.S. to come out of the shadows.

“There definitely needs to be a push for something more permanent not only for DACA recipients, but also for other undocumented citizens that want to live without ties and boundaries,” he said.