Medical student in Vermont under DACA: ‘This is my home’

Juan Conde
First-year medical student Juan Conde, center, and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., appear at a news conference Monday urging Congress to extend legal protections for the children of unauthorized immigrants. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
BURLINGTON — Juan Conde, a 31-year-old first-year medical student at the University of Vermont, says he’s tired of living in fear about his immigration status.

The Mexican native, who said he arrived in Texas with his mother and brother at age 9, is among the roughly 800,000 participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allows some people who were brought to the United States illegally as children to avoid deportation for two years and get a work permit.

The Trump administration announced last week that it would “wind down” DACA over the next six months. After the announcement, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to call on Congress to pass a legislative fix restoring protections for DACA recipients.

Conde joined Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., UVM President Thomas Sullivan and close to a dozen of his fellow medical students at a Monday news conference urging Congress to follow through and pass legislation extending DACA.

“This is my home. The American people are my people, and I know the hearts of the American people,” Conde said, explaining his decision to come forward and share his story publicly. “I know that they still believe that America is that shining city on the hill, and that the promise of the American dream is still, through all these years, undying and strong, because only in America could my story be true.”

When Conde was preparing for college, he said, he was concerned his immigration status would prevent him from getting an education. But even in “conservative ‘Don’t tread on me’ Texas,” he said, the opportunities for his future were not a political issue but a matter of “basic human decency and fairness.”

Texas passed a law in 2001 allowing unauthorized immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities, a change that allowed Conde to earn his bachelor’s degree, he said.

“They looked to us and said, ‘Son, in America we do not hold children accountable for the sins of their parents,’ and they told us if you want to earn an education we will not stop you,” he said.

Conde studied chemistry and biology with the hope of becoming a doctor. However, at that time, his immigration status prevented him from enrolling in medical school after graduation.

Around that time, Conde said, his mother died of cancer. He decided that if he couldn’t become a doctor, he would throw himself into medical research to help develop cures for cancer. Conde earned his Master of Science and later his doctorate researching tobacco use, he said.

“In America we never wallow in self-pity. We take our hits, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and continue on,” he said.

When DACA was enacted by President Barack Obama through executive action in 2012, it made it possible for Conde to attend medical school. It’s what brought him to Vermont and the Robert Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He said his story isn’t unique and mirrors those of many other DACA recipients.

Welch said Conde exemplifies why it’s critical for Congress to find a DACA solution. “In fact, I agree with President Trump in telling Congress to do its job. We should do our job. We should pass, by law, legal protections for individuals like Juan who were brought here when they were young by their parents,” Welch said.

Welch said he would do everything in his power to see that Congress does just that during the six-month window when Trump has pledged not to begin targeting DACA recipients for deportation. The lawmaker said the other members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are committed to that aim as well.

The challenge, according to Welch, will be getting a so-called clean bill extending DACA protections through Congress, because many in Washington are hoping to use the legislation to pass more-controversial immigration measures, such as funding for a border wall.

“If we put a bill on the floor that was a clean DACA extension, it would pass with a very significant margin,” Welch said. “It’s absolutely wrong in my view to hold hostage people like Juan because some members have a different agenda.”

A number of clean DACA bills have been introduced to this point, Welch said, and it’s just a matter of whether Republican leadership will bring one to the floor with enough time for it to pass both houses of Congress.

“I’m ready to vote tomorrow,” he said.

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