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Originally published July 14, 2013 at 5:37 PM | Page modified July 15, 2013 at 4:28 PM

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Medical school beyond reach of UW grad brought here illegally

A young man, determined since childhood to become a doctor, must come to terms with the fact that all but one of the nation’s medical schools — including the University of Washington — do not admit those in the country illegally.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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More than anything else, Simon Mendoza wants to be a doctor.

He was 13 when the idea morphed from childhood ambition into a real goal — after his father suffered a workplace accident, and Mendoza as his interpreter accompanied him to appointments and helped direct his physical therapy.

At 16, he obtained a certified nursing assistant (CNA) license and, volunteering with the Red Cross, traveled to Louisiana to help provide medical care after Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

And just before he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Washington last year, Mendoza started a free clinic to help deliver basic health care to those living in rural areas of the state — including the little town of Royal City, Grant County, where he grew up.

But for all he’s done to prepare, medical school remains only a distant hope for the 22-year-old Mendoza, whose parents brought him to the U.S. illegally from Mexico when he was less than a year old.

The UW School of Medicine, which he wants to attend, does not admit people who are in the country unlawfully — a policy that exists at all but one of the nation’s medical schools.

“If someone asked me to pick the one person I’d like to see admitted (to medical school), he would be my choice,” said Jaime Lara, a microbiology professor who retired in 2011 after nearly 40 years at the UW, many of them on the admissions committee of the medical school.

“He’ll make an excellent physician one day.”

For undergraduate and all other graduate programs, the UW not only accepts undocumented immigrants, but under state law also grants them in-state tuition.

In fact, the UW School of Medicine, like many other medical schools, accepts no international students at all and only a limited number from outside its service region, which includes Washington, Montana, Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming.

With a limited number of available slots, medical schools say they must focus on candidates who in the end can actually work — and complete a residency and practice medicine.

This year, for example, about 4 percent of the more than 6,000 people who applied to the UW medical school were accepted. In an email, the school said its policy is “historical and based on graduating doctors who are most likely to meet the health-care needs of the region.”

“A miracle has to happen”

For a while, Mendoza had pinned his hopes on a green-card petition his father’s brother filed for him, his siblings and his parents when they all first arrived in the U.S. about 20 years ago.

But a huge backlog of green-card applications means a long wait for those from countries such as Mexico, China and India. When he turned 22 this month, Mendoza, the youngest of the children without legal immigration status, became too old to be considered part of the family application — just as green cards were becoming available for them.

His voice broke as he talked about this crushing turn of events, and said he hopes immigration authorities might consider his circumstances as they consider his parents’ case.

“My whole life all I’ve tried to do is help people,” said Mendoza, who works as a caregiver for a retired doctor. “I’ve always been one to never lose hope, always looking for the loophole. At this point a miracle has to happen.”

An announcement last year by the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University offers some hope.

The private Jesuit school in Chicago has begun accepting applications from certain undocumented young people — those eligible for a kind of quasi-legal status called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Those individuals are eligible for Social Security numbers and work permits.

Mark Kuczewski, director of the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at Loyola, said the school has been flooded with inquiries since its policy went into effect, and he estimates that up to a dozen DACA applicants will be accepted this year.

At a time when the nation is growing more diverse — with Latinos leading the way — medical schools cannot continue turning away promising, talented young people, Kuczewski said.

“We are glad to be the first, but we don’t want to be the last,” he said.

Other medical schools are reviewing their admissions policies in light of DACA. The UW is not one of them.

DACA status isn’t a permanent fix for those in the country illegally. Created through executive order by the Obama administration, it’s renewable after two years but could be nixed by a future administration.

Kuczewski said admissions officials at Stritch decided not to worry about that: “They are eligible today, and we’ll allow them to compete on a level playing field,” he said.

Geoffrey Young, senior director of student affairs and programs with the Association of American Medical Colleges said medical schools are becoming increasingly aware of DACA.

“They are beginning to look at what their policies are in conjunction with state law and ultimately whether students under DACA will be able to complete his or her training,” Young said.

Alternatives to a dream

Mendoza’s parents initially settled in Kent after arriving in Washington in the 1990s; both eventually found work on a dairy farm in Eastern Washington.

After his father’s hand was crushed in a workplace accident, Mendoza said the family returned to Kent, where he graduated from Kentlake High School.

Unable to afford tuition at the UW at that time, he earned an associate degree from Green River Community College and was accepted to the UW in 2010. He said he worked at least 30 hours a week throughout college, while also taking jobs and volunteering at hospitals and nursing homes to gain training and experience.

Last year, he created a nonprofit organization called Rural Health Education, coaxing funds from various groups, including private donors to help pay for it.

He and several other students along with nurses offer free cholesterol and blood-pressure tests and other services, in rural parts of Eastern Washington.

Mendoza, who wants to be a primary-care physician, said he applied only to the UW because the in-state tuition there was all his family could afford. Being able to live at home while he attends medical school would also save money.

If he’s unable to attend medical school (he’s now considering applying to Loyola), he might apply to a physician-assistant program at the UW.

Though far from ideal, he said, “That could well be the closest I’ll get to my dream.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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