Durbin Speaks With DACA Recipient & Emergency Room Resident To Highlight Immigrant Health Heroes

SPRINGFIELD – U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, spoke with Dr. Manuel Bernal, a DACA recipient and emergency room resident at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Chicago, one of the busiest trauma hospitals on Chicago’s South Side.  In a new Facebook video, Durbin thanked Dr. Bernal for his work on the front lines of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as part of Durbin’s #ImmigrantHealthHeroes initiative, and heard from Dr. Bernal about how DACA has impacted his life.

“It was my pleasure to have the chance to reconnect with Dr. Manuel Bernal, an inspirational young man who is working on the front lines of this public health crisis as an emergency room resident at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Chicago,” Durbin said.  “Not only is he managing the stress of the emergency room during this COVID-19 pandemic, but he has the added anxiety of a legal status in limbo because of President Trump’s decision to arbitrarily end DACA.  Removing more than 200,000 DACA recipients from the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 would only add to our current health and economic crisis.  I’ll keep fighting for Dr. Bernal and all of America’s Dreamers.”

The Facebook video of Durbin’s conversation with Dr. Bernal is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s conversation with Dr. Bernal is available here for TV Stations.

While a Supreme Court decision on DACA hangs in the balance, Dreamers across the country are working on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 as doctors, nurses, health care professionals, and in countless other essential jobs.  Despite their contributions to the American workforce, the Trump Administration is focused on arbitrarily ending DACA, which allows approximately 202,500 DACA recipients to serve as essential critical workers.

Durbin first introduced the Dream Act nineteen years ago.  In March 2019, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Durbin introduced the Dream Act of 2019.  The Dream Act was also included in the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that Durbin and Graham coauthored as part of the “Gang of Eight” – four Democrats and four Republicans.  The 2013 bill passed the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote of 68-32, but the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives refused to consider it.

Last month, Durbin led 37 Senators in a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to automatically extend work authorizations for DACA and TPS recipients and other impacted immigrants.  A provision championed by Durbin to legislatively extend these work authorizations was included in the Heroes Act, which passed the House of Representatives on Friday.

About Dr. Manuel Bernal

Manuel’s parents brought him to the United States when he was only two years old.  He grew up in Memphis, Tennessee.  Manuel graduated in the top ten percent of his high school class, and he was a leader of several high school honor societies.  In his spare time, Manuel was a swimmer and a football player, and he volunteered with the St. Jude Club and the Key Club.

Manuel continued his education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  He graduated summa cum laude with a major in biology and minor in chemistry.  In college, Manuel worked as a medical scribe for doctors in the emergency room of a small community hospital in Chattanooga.  After this experience, Manuel decided that he wanted to become an emergency room physician. 

Manuel continued his education at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.  He was one of dozens of DACA recipients at Stritch, the first medical school to admit DACA students.

A transcript of Durbin and Dr. Bernal’s conversation is below:

Senator Dick Durbin: I’m here today with Dr. Manuel Bernal. What a fascinating story.

I met him many years ago when he was just starting medical school at Loyola Stritch College of Medicine. The reason we met was that there was a program created by President Obama called ‘DACA.’ The DACA program was for those young people brought to the United States when they were babies, infants, toddlers, little kids, and raised in this country, went to school here, and really never filed the papers. They are basically undocumented. Most of them have never known another place to live, they’ve always thought America was home. And some of them learned when they were teenagers, to their surprise, that there was a legal problem. Well, many of them said ‘we’re really Americans and we want to be part of America’s future.’ We call them ‘Dreamers,’ they were originally people helped by the Dream Act, a bill that I introduced. And President Obama said ‘we’re going to allow them to stay two years at a time, renewable, as long as they are in good behavior and can really make a better country for us.’ Well, that DACA program led to 790,000 young people stepping forward for this protection. Luckily for some of them, Loyola College of Medicine in Chicago decided to open its enrollment so that they can apply. They had to compete just like everybody else, they weren’t given any special treatments or quotas, and a number of them were so good and so talented that they were accepted at Loyola College of Medicine. One of them is our guest today, Manuel Bernal, and I first met him when he came there. What a great story. Raised in Tennessee, Manuel tell me about how you came to America.

Dr. Manuel Bernal: Sure, well thank you for having me Senator Durbin. I was born in Mexico and I left the country of my birth at the age of two grew up really in Tennessee, in Memphis, Tennessee, where I lived up until the age of eighteen. Then I went to Chattanooga, Tennessee where I attended undergraduate school for four years at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. And then, at that time, DACA was announced by President Obama, and shortly afterward that gave me the opportunity to enroll in medical school where I attended medical school at Loyola University in Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine.

Durbin: Now let me slow you down a little bit. I want to go back to Tennessee for a minute. I recall that there was a part of your life that connected you up with St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Can you tell me what the connection was there?

Manuel: Yeah, so we have a close family friend who is from Mexico. And St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital accepts patients globally, from all over the world, that otherwise really wouldn’t have the opportunity to receive the medical care that they need to treat their rare illnesses and cancers. And one of our family friends was accepted as a patient at St. Jude and moved from Mexico to Memphis and really that was my first exposure into the medical community. I really learned from the physicians who took care of my family friend and really that was the first introduction that I had into medicine, and that is really what sparked that interest in medicine for me.

Durbin: That’s such a famous hospital, and I know that you did some work there, volunteer work there, but then you went on to college education in Tennessee. Chattanooga, is that correct?

Manuel: That is correct, yes.

Durbin: And then, as I recall, you didn’t start medical school right away, you did something else. You were a scribe – what does that mean?

Manuel: Yeah, so I was given the opportunity to be a medical scribe, which, basically I documented, did a lot of the documentation for ER physicians in a small community hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’d follow up with patient’s lab work, x-ray results, prescriptions. I made sure that basically all the charting is complete and it basically increases efficiency for doctors to see more patients more efficiently.

Durbin: So, what did you major in in College?

Manuel:  I majored in Biology with a minor in Chemistry.

Durbin: Did you get good grades?

Manuel: Oh yeah, definitely so. School, for me, was really what I could focus on to kind of distract myself from my immigration status. It’s the one thing that I had control over. It was easy for me to study and really enjoy learning, all within the context of trying to become a physician someday.

Durbin: So, you ended up applying to Loyola Stritch College of Medicine, and you were accepted and went to school there. Because of your DACA status, you could go to school without being afraid of being deported, and you were allowed to work under that DACA status, is that correct?

Manuel: That is correct. Yes. Fortunately, DACA was announced and shortly afterwards, really DACA was the reason why certain medical schools considered me as a candidate for being a medical student.  So I applied to DACA, I applied actually to medical school and I applied to about five medical schools that I had reached out to and inquired about their admissions policy in regards to DACA. And a lot of these schools really didn’t know what DACA was or what it meant.  And a lot of schools were afraid to even consider me as an applicant. But Loyola University of Chicago Stritch School of Medicine was one of those brave leaders in the medical community that really did open up their doors to me and my fellow classmates to attend and really fulfill our dreams of becoming physicians.

Durbin: Now it is tough enough to be undocumented and be a student in medical school, but you did not qualify for federal help in paying for your education, did you?

Manuel: No I did not. I cannot not take out a single cent of federal help.

Durbin: But the State of Illinois, under several Governors now – three – has offered assistance to students like you, with a condition.  Want to explain it?

Manuel: Yes, so the condition is that I pay back my time and the money, in completion, as long as I serve for the amount of, the amount of each year that I received loans, so a total for four years, I pay that back in service to Illinois in an area that is needed.

Durbin: So you might be a practicing physician downstate or in the inner city of Chicago, but in an area where there is real need for doctors.

Manuel: Exactly, yes.

Durbin: This is a program that was started under Governor Quinn and continued under Governors Rauner and Pritzker, and a number of young people, many of which went through Loyola, have taken advantage of this.  So once you finished your four years of medical school, you have “Match Day” they call it and an opportunity to go to the next step.  Explain the next step in your medical education.

Manuel: Yeah, so the next step is residency, which for me that is a three-year program of further training in a certain area of specialization.  For me, I choose emergency medicine.  So that really is, it is a great field that I have known for a really long time that I wanted to be an emergency medicine physician because it allows me to work in the ER.  And the ER is a unique place because really it’s the only place in medicine that has an open door model. Every patient that shows up at our doors is entitled to an evaluation, a medical evaluation, by a physician or health care provider, which I think is the beauty of working in an ER. We can’t turn down anybody regardless of their nationality, their ability to pay, or their background.  And it really is something that really strikes me as very important and it is what keeps me going into work every day.

Durbin: I’m told it is a tough job, that a resident works a lot of hours sometimes long hours into the night.  Is that true?

Manuel: It is true, yes.  Sometimes, especially during my second year of residency, I’ve had shifts go up to 32 hours.

Durbin: Woah! And tell us where your residency is?

Manuel: Yes, I work currently at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois.  It serves the Chicagoland area. It is a level one trauma center.  We see about 115,000 patients a year in our emergency department.  And it is a really fascinating place because we are really busy.  It is a great place to learn.  We see a very diverse set of population with many, many different ailments – chronic health issues.  But it is an interesting place to work during the time of coronavirus because you know the busyness never goes away and on top of how busy we usually are, we are having to deal with making sure that we are well protected with our appropriate PPE and that we keep other health care workers protected.  It is just a fascinating place to work.

Durbin: I understand you may have volunteered to work helping COVID-19 patients. Would you explain that?

Manuel: So it wouldn't necessarily say I volunteered, our program director has always been very upfront of, if we feel uncomfortable as residents taking care of COVID-19 patients, that we have the right to refuse or request a different assignment and you know for me, I think it is my duty as a physician to take care of these patients. Especially, you know, I consider myself low-risk as far as if I were to contract covid-19, low-risk as far as the severity of the disease. But I think it's my duty and it's also a privilege to be able to step up when help is needed.

Durbin: Well, Manuel, it may be low-risk but it is risky. We've heard about doctors and nurses and others who become infected and some with very sad results. So, you know that going in I’m sure and you try to wear all the protective equipment that’s necessary, don’t you?

Manuel: Oh, I definitely do. And up until this point our hospital has been very transparent and working very, very hard in ensuring that us as healthcare providers have the appropriate PPE, but it is difficult and I can imagine it being difficult for hospital administrators to ensure that all workers have appropriate PPE, but up to this point I have felt protected and I can see that that will become more and more challenging in the near future but I am keeping hopeful.

Durbin: So, I have two final questions. First, about DACA. The DACA program created by President Obama was abolished by President Trump. It is currently being tested in court as to whether or not President Trump did that properly. But it meant, frankly, that for the 790,000 to sign up for DACA there's some uncertainty. The Supreme Court could rule, even this year, that the DACA program is ended at this point. What has DACA meant to you personally?

Manuel: DACA has meant a lot to me. I remember the very first day that I, when I first found out about President Obama's announcement of the DACA program. I was working in a lab in my college back in Tennessee when I first received the CNN notification about this announcement. And I personally was very overwhelmed. It was the first time that I really felt some level of security, even though I didn't at that point know exactly how it would all play out. For me, it meant being able to get a driver's license, being able to drive to school every day not fearing for my for my life or you know possible deportation. It meant being able to apply to medical school, being able to attain these loans to finance my education. It meant being able to graduate from medical school and finally being able to call myself a doctor. And then it meant being able to enter into residency and having patients of my own, taking care of patients who are critically ill. It’s meant a level of security that has put my mind at ease, and ever since President Trump announced that he intends to get rid of the program, that same level of anxiety that I've had it for so long in my life returned and it's not something that is foreign to me because I grew up with that anxiety, but it's making it a lot harder to do my job and do it well. I'm still very happy to take care of patients in the emergency department because it’s what I love doing, but without DACA I wouldn't be able to do that, and that's something that is very upsetting.

Durbin: So let me think about the positive side of this, that when it's all over and you'll be able to stay, you don’t have to worry about deportation, you’ll be able to work in the United States. You’ll set aside your obligation to the state of Illinois for helping to pay for your medical education. What is your dream as a doctor? Where do you want to be? What do you want to do?

Manuel: Sure, I mean, my dream as a doctor is to take care of patients, to take care of patients when they most need it and take care of patients who are critically ill. And I feel like being an emergency medical doctor really meets all the dreams that I have ever had. So for me, what I see myself doing in the future is just being a community emergency medicine doctor either in a rural setting or in a city, or where the demand is there. And that to me, that’s a happy future. So I couldn’t ask for much more.

Durbin: Dr. Bernal, is America your home?

Manuel: It definitely is.

Durbin: Well we want you to stay in your home and bring your talents to help so many people in Illinois and around our nation. Thank you for this interview. Don’t give up. We’re fighting for you in Washington and the American people stand behind you. You’re going through a tough time, but you’re proving every single day why we have faith in DACA and faith in people like you, who come against great odds and have been able to overcome them and show that you have a lot to offer to this great nation. Thank you for joining us today.

Manuel: Thank you, Senator. I really appreciate it.