Medical schools should be trying to enroll more undocumented immigrants, a new report from the University of California-Los Angeles says.

Young undocumented immigrants are often highly motivated and with the right incentives could help alleviate a nationwide shortage of primary-care physicians, says the paper by researchers at the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Academic Medicine on Tuesday.

It’s an important issue for medical schools to consider, officials with the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson said in response to the study.

UA College of Medicine policy is to accept U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents only. Officials say the medical school has not had undocumented student applicants in the current application cycle to date.

But the local medical school is investigating how it might be able to consider certain young undocumented applicants who meet admissions requirements, UA College of Medicine spokesman George Humphrey wrote in an email. The medical school’s primary mission is “to educate and graduate a skilled, diverse physician workforce for the state of Arizona and beyond,” he wrote.

The authors of “Undocumented Students Pursuing Medical Education: The Implications of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” say an initiative signed by the Obama administration in 2012 could help bolster the number of undocumented young people going to medical school in the U.S.

While U.S. citizens graduating from medical school are frequently choosing to enter lucrative medical specialties, undocumented immigrants feel a deep commitment to work in underserved, low-income communities, the researchers found.

The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative allows certain young undocumented immigrants to work legally in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Those who qualify under DACA are often referred to as “Dreamers” after the proposed federal legislation called the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act).

DACA applies to people who were younger than 31 in June 2012 and who have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007. In order to qualify, immigrants must also be enrolled in high school, be high school graduates or have obtained a GED certificate, and they must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors.

About 1.8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. can prove they arrived in the U.S. when they were younger than 16, the UCLA study found.

Under DACA, the government defers the deportation of some of these immigrants and allows them to obtain work permits, Social Security numbers and, in 45 states, driver’s licenses — all of which are renewable every two years.

The Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine is the only school that made a formal announcement inviting applications from qualified people with DACA immigration status or who are DACA-eligible, in addition to being U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

Loyola’s policy addresses the biggest hurdle that undocumented U.S. residents face when contemplating medical school — financing. In addition to school-based aid, highly qualified DACA applicants at the Strich School of Medicine are eligible for a targeted loan from the Illinois Finance Authority, the infrastructure bank of the state of Illinois. The loan requires that the recipient provide a year of service in a designated underserved area of the state of Illinois for each year he or she receives the loan. The loan is interest-free with completion of the service obligation.

Other medical schools around the country have begun informally accepting undocumented immigrants, but authors of the UCLA paper say it would be more helpful if there were a national list that students could use as a guide, since they often can’t afford to apply to multiple schools. Undocumented immigrants are explicitly excluded from the Association of American Medical Colleges Fee Assistance Program, which waives application and admission test fees for low-income U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

The authors estimate that admitting students who would qualify for DACA to medical schools could result in anywhere from 5,400 to 31,860 potential future physicians.

While some young people who remain in the U.S. under DACA are already in medical school, the paper concludes it is a largely untapped population for the medical school applicant pool.

The authors propose a number of ways to make medical education more accessible to this group, including:

  • Financial-planning advice early on, including information on private need- and merit-based scholarships, private loans, and school loans.
  • Psychosocial support and a welcoming environment that can help ensure their success in medical school.

“It is time for broad discussions among medical school administrators, faculty, students and staff to develop institutional responses and to make standards readily available and more transparent for interested undocumented students,” the authors write. “We call upon the medical community to support these students as they pursue medical careers.”

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at or 573-4134.