Many people in Jirayut Latthivongskorn’s position would not welcome the public recognition that he is receiving, including an award from the U.S. Public Health Service and a mention in Forbes magazine’s 2017 “30 Under 30” list.
That is because Latthivongskorn lives in the United States illegally, having overstayed his visa soon after moving with his parents at the age of 9. Many with Latthivongskorn’s legal status fear that any news about them, even good news, might be all that is needed to deport them or their loved ones.
Latthivongskorn, who goes by the name “New,” has an entirely different take on news. A rising fourth-year student at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, the Thai immigrant embraces publicity—not for himself, but to raise awareness about the plight he shares with other so-called dreamers who entered the U.S. illegally as children and want to contribute to American society in meaningful ways.
To that end, Latthivongskorn several years ago co-founded an advocacy group, Pre-Health Dreamers (PHD), to provide support, information and resources to peers with tenuous immigration status who are interested in pursuing careers in the health care field. Now more than 750 strong, PHD members throughout the country are raising awareness about their individual and collective challenges, talking with state legislators and higher-education leaders.
Latthivongskorn said there is a need for more informed admissions processes, more robust student services, and equitable financial support such as federal loans, loan repayment options and even many private scholarship and fellowship opportunities that people living in the U.S. illegally are barred from receiving. He said PHD has worked closely with the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), resulting in changes to the medical school and residency application systems, and an expansion of the Fee Assistance Program to low-income students living in the U.S. illegaly.
“It keeps me grounded,” Latthivongskorn said of his work with PHD. “Many of the members are in the same place I was many years ago. I see how hard they’re working. It takes a huge amount of resilience for them to pursue their educational and career goals. They are the ones who inspire and rejuvenate me.”
The U.S. Public Health Service recognized Latthivongskorn’s medical student activities as being in line with the agency’s mission to “protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our nation.” In addition to co-founding Pre-Health Dreamers, Latthivongskorn also advises University of California system President Janet Napolitano on the President’s Advisory Council on Undocumented Students. He also serves on the board of directors at Asian Health Services, working to expand health care options for Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Bay Area.
Struggling to make ends meet after arriving from Thailand, Latthivongskorn’s parents worked in restaurants in Northern California to support Latthivongskorn and his two older siblings. Health care was never an option for them, he said. That was not because the family lacked access or insurance, but “because we were never fully educated” about what benefits, albeit limited, were available to them as people who live in the country illegally.
“I went to the doctor four times growing up,” said Latthivongskorn, who suffered from significant eczema as a youth. “There were no annual or preventative health visits. We didn’t know we had any coverage.”
It was after his mother sustained a medical emergency and hemorrhaged significantly that Latthivongskorn decided that he wanted to become a physician and address, as both a clinician and an advocate, health care disparities.
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley—which he was able to attend mostly by working part-time and earning private scholarships—Latthivongskorn balanced his studies with student-led activism on behalf of immigrants’ rights and participation in community activities to help the less fortunate. For example, he ran a foot-washing clinic at Suitcase Clinic, the student-run campus organization serving homeless people. He also got involved in community, organizing with Educators for Fair Consideration and Aspire, which advocates on behalf of Asian Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. illegally
Latthivongskorn learned early on, he said, that sharing personal narratives is the most effective approach to opening people’s hearts and minds to policy changes. He and other PHD members often talk about their immigration stories—the reasons they uprooted themselves from impoverished, often war-torn countries and put themselves and their loved ones on the line to come to the United States.
In the case of Latthivongskorn’s family, he and his parents and siblings left Bangkok after the collapse of Thailand’s economy in the 1990s. In an interview published on the website of the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund, he recounted his family’s early days in the United States:
“It was difficult to make a new start. My parents had been successful business people in Thailand, running their own business, and suddenly they were cleaning toilets, mopping floors. Managers would yell at them. And all of it was for my brother, my sister and myself. Coming here meant we could be part of America’s public education system. I still can’t believe how much my parents sacrificed to make sure we got a good education.”
Primary care mission
As the first “dreamer” to matriculate at UCSF, Latthivongskorn attends medical school as part of the institution’s Program in Medical Education for the Urban Underserved, which provides additional training and support for those who plan to work in underserved communities. This fall, he will take a year off from medical school to pursue a master’s degree in public health at Harvard University.
Latthivongskorn said he aspires to combine a primary care practice in an urban setting, where he can treat patients from underserved communities, with continued efforts as an advocate and public-policy specialist who can work toward reducing health care disparities.
Of the doors that continue to open for him—thanks to his perseverance and academic successes—Latthivongskorn said, “I’m happy, but I don’t think I will feel fully liberated” until many others in similar circumstances have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
The AMA has expressed support for people who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, colloquially known as “dreamers” after the Congressional legislation that failed to secure passage. In February, AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, wrote to Congress, urging that DACA and DACA-eligible individuals be granted a three-year legal status until a permanent solution on lawful immigration for DACA recipients can be implemented.