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Despite Risk, UVM Medical Student Comes Forward To Defend DACA Program

Juan Conde, a first-year medical student at UVM, speaks to reporters about how the DACA program allowed him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
Kathleen Masterson
Juan Conde, a first-year medical student at UVM, speaks to reporters about how the DACA program allowed him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.

Speaking at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont on Monday, Congressman Peter Welch said it was critical that Congress find a way to continue DACA— Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.  He praised the work ethic of the American residents who came to the U.S. as children, "We want them around, we want their example, we want the benefit of their contribution."

Welch spoke along with UVM President Tom Sullivan and  Juan Conde, a first-year medical student at UVM who is also a DACA recipient.  DACA is a 2012 federal program that allowed people who were brought to the U.S. as children to get an education and work permits.

"A lot of folks like Juan came forward when the executive order was passed, they gave their name, they gave their address, they gave this information and came out of the shadows," said Welch.

"So now, we've got a new president, and a new Congress, and suddenly those folks who trusted our government, are going to get hammered and taken to some country they can't remember even having been to, we know that's not right."

Welch thanked Juan Conde for coming forward to share his story, and taking that risk of publicly identifying himself as a so-called Dreamer.

Pursuing the 'American Dream'

Speaking to a small crowd of reporters and his fellow medical students, Juan Conde told the story of how he came to the United States from Mexico when he was nine years old. His mother brought him and his brother across the border into Eagle Pass, Texas.

Conde says his mother believed "that in America, it did not matter who you were born as, what mattered was that with hard work, dedication and grit, you could accomplish anything that you dreamt of."  

Conde's mother died from cancer in 2007 when he was in college, which further cemented his goal of becoming a doctor. But because of his status as an undocumented resident, he couldn’t apply to medical school.

So he pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry, to dedicate his career to researching cancer. Then, the DACA program was instituted in 2012, and everything changed.

Suddenly Conde was eligible for research assistant position at the university, a drivers license, and— the key for Conde— he could apply to medical school. 

He finished his Ph.D., was accepted to UVM and moved to Vermont in July.

'There are 800,000 stories like mine'

When President Trump rescinded the DACA program earlier this month, Conde decided he needed to come forward despite the risk to advocate for DACA recipients.

"Because I think what will change ... people's opinion is to hear who we are," says Conde. "Not as something abstract, but to hear the person behind who is a DACA student, why should we care abut DACA."

The University of Vermont has pledged to support DACA recipients like Conde, including with legal aid if necessary.

President Tom Sullivan says the university does not ask its students their immigration status, so he doesn't know how many Dreamers are attending UVM.  However he said he has spoken with "several" other DACA recipients and assured them the university will support them.

A tough road ahead in Congress

Congressman Welch says he believes there are enough Republicans in Congress who would support an continuation of DACA, but he worries that Congressional leadership won't allow a clean vote on DACA—without injecting other immigration issues:

"What I'm going to object to is using the Dreamers as a hostage by members who want to, say, talk about the wall. They can talk about the wall, we can have a vote on the wall.  I'm willing to stand up and be held accountable for my position. But we ought to have that clarity on the wall, we ought to have clarity on DACA."

Welch also noted that Dreamers will be paying over $43 billion in social security and Medicare  taxes over the next decade.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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