Portland, Ore. — It was only around 7:30 a.m., as Dr. Eddie Ramirez was getting ready for work, when the influx of phone messages arrived — the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18 ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, could continue.

Photo of Dr. Ramirez
Dr. Ramirez
“It was a shock,” he said. “I just felt this huge relief.”

Dr. Ramirez works at Virginia Garcia Memorial Center and Foundation, a federally qualified health center located west of Portland that serves a largely immigrant population.

“My patient base is the community I grew up in,” he said. “When I see kids at the clinic, I see myself at their age. When I see working families, I see my family in them. I’m just glad, for now, I can continue to serve my patients.”

However, there’s a feeling of uncertainty — one he’s often felt for most of his life, especially on his goal in becoming a dentist — that remains.  

“Being an undocumented individual, you live with not knowing what will happen,” he said. “But for now, I’m thankful that we’re allowed to continue.”

Realizing limits

Dr. Ramirez was brought to Oregon when he was 1 year old.

He was in fourth grade when he first started realizing what that meant. One day, after school, he found both of his parents were home.

“That was not normal because only one was supposed to be home since they had different schedules,” he said. “I knew something was up.”

Dr. Ramirez said he remembers asking them if everything was OK.

“My mom sits me down and tells me, ‘Mijo, we lost our jobs,’” he said. His parents, at the time, worked in a hospital laundering company.

The next day, he mentioned what happened to his parents to one of his classmates.

“My classmate looked at me and said, and I can still remember it, ‘Your parents got fired because they’re illegal,’” he said.

The uncertainty continued on through high school, where Dr. Ramirez was a straight A student body president. It was time for him to start thinking about what he wanted to pursue.

“When we first had the conversation about college, my parents would break down,” he said. “They would feel at fault. They didn’t realize the extent of the consequences when they sought a better life, that there would be limits.”

Photo of Dr. Ramirez with his parents
Accomplishment: Dr. Eddie Ramirez, center, pose for a photo with his parents at the 2018 Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry graduation. 
Path to dentistry

In his last visit back to Mexico, Dr. Ramirez said he was about 8 years old when one of his aunts took him to her dental practice.

To entertain him, his aunt would ask him to do little tasks in the office.

“And I just fell in love with it, even when I just had to clean the spit bowl,” he said.

But his path to dentistry was filled with ups and downs.

After high school, Dr. Ramirez decided to attend Portland State University, which accepted undocumented students, and pursued a major in biology and a minor in chemistry.

But without a Social Security number, Dr. Ramirez said he couldn’t apply for many of the financial grants and scholarships available.

“I went to my orientation, and my mom was in tears,” he said. “She told me, ‘Mijo, we can’t afford this.’”

Unable to pay for the $7,000-plus-a-year tuition, Dr. Ramirez decided he would withdraw. But then he received a voicemail from his high school French teacher, who said she and her parents would like to pay for his first year in college.

In June 2012, as Dr. Ramirez’s sophomore year was set to begin, President Obama launched DACA. The program provides a two-year work permit to undocumented immigrants if they meet certain criteria. These include passing a background check, they must have arrived in the country before they were 16 years old, and paying a $495 fee.

“Because I have a Social Security number, I was now able to apply for jobs,” he said. His right-to-work papers allowed him to get an on-campus job, which helped pay for the rest of his undergraduate studies.

But uncertainties came creeping back in when it was time to apply for dental schools.

A pre-dental adviser asked him to consider thinking of a different career because it was unlikely he would be accepted to any dental school.

“That was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to hear,” he said.

Nonetheless, Dr. Ramirez decided to apply to five dental schools. Of those, only the Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry accepted him. Only one problem: covering the $70,000-a-year tuition, as he was still ineligible for federal and state financial aid.

However, to address the shortage of health care providers in rural areas, the state of Oregon had just created the Scholars for a Healthy Oregon Initiative, which would waive off the tuition and fees of graduates who work for five years in rural Oregon and areas designated as medically underserved.

Several months after applying for the program, he received the answer. He received the scholarship, becoming the first undocumented student to attend dental school in Oregon.

“From the start, I saw Eddie’s passion for dentistry, little by little I saw improvements in him as a clinician but the human part of dentistry was already there,” said Dr. Jorge Garaicoa-Pazmino, Oregon Health & Science University School of Dentistry associate professor of periodontics and Dr. Ramirez’s mentor. “He is a natural leader, and I knew that he was not only going to be a great dentist but also an example for many to come after him of what happens when you put your mind and effort into something even against all odds.”

‘Wave of emotions’

Dr. Ramirez was finishing dental school in the summer of 2017 when he heard that the Trump administration announced it would rescind DACA. Legal challenges ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments last fall.

Until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, Dr. Ramirez continued moving forward, finding a position at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.

“I love my job,” he said. “I feel like I’m able to serve my community in more ways than just dentistry. My patients come to me, and we talk about daycare, the work they’re doing, their struggles. It’s the same struggles I saw my parents experience.”

Dr. Ramirez’s two-year work permit through DACA was renewed last year in November, giving him until November 2021 to continue to work.

While awaiting the Supreme Court decision, Dr. Ramirez said he was in constant communication with his dental director and his alma mater’s scholarship office.

“If it’s rescinded, I can’t fulfill my five-year work commitment,” he said.

Then on June 18, the decision arrived.

“It was a wave of emotions that hit me because DACA gets to live another day,” he said. “But again, anything can still happen. I remember in college talking to my parents, reminding them that they came here because they wanted a better life. As cliché as this sounds, they were pursuing the American dream. We’re still pursuing it.”