Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is part of the large swath of immigrant cancer researchers helping to fight cancer in the U.S. (Courtesy Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa)

Study: More than 40 percent of nation’s top cancer researchers are immigrants

With the national spotlight on immigration reform, a new study shines a positive light on the impact immigrants have once in the United States.

According to the study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), more than 40 percent of the cancer researchers at America’s top cancer institutes are immigrants.

“The outstanding work of immigrant cancer researchers is an example of how being open to immigration can benefit Americans,” said the report’s author Stuart Anderson, executive director of the NFAP and former head of policy and counselor to the commissioner of the INS.

Recent hearings in Congress have analyzed the immigration system as a whole and immigrants in highly skilled jobs who encounter difficulty finding permanent residence.

The study echoed these concerns, finding that cancer researchers often wait years for permanent residence and endure the same long wait for green cards as other highly skilled immigrants and their employers. “The lack of reliable ways for even cancer researchers to obtain permanent residence illustrates some of the serious problems with America’s immigration system,” Anderson said.

The researchers at the top 7 cancer centers come from more than 50 nations with Spain, Brazil and Argentina in the top 20.  At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center 62 percent of the cancer researchers are immigrants. In 2012, U.S. News & World Report ranked MD Anderson the number one cancer treatment facility in the country for patients. At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, 56 percent of the researchers are foreign-born.

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Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa is one of the immigrants whose stratospheric success is even more impressive in light of his humble beginnings. Quiñones-Hinojosa is a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, neuroscience, and cellular and molecular medicine at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the brain tumor surgery program at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital. He is also director of the pituitary surgery program at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and leads the facility’s brain tumor stem cell laboratory.

Quiñones-Hinojosa first came to America from Mexico as an undocumented farm worker knowing little English, and overcame obstacles to graduate from Harvard Medical School and become a leading neurosurgeon. He performs over 250 brain surgeries a  year, often removing life-threatening tumors and his work in brain cancer is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The research is really the most exciting part of  what I do,” said Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa, who recently released an autobiography entitled Becoming Dr. Q. “I’m not only trying to save lives in the operating room. The research we  are doing with this tissue is to  find out whether or not there are stem cells within brain cancer – stem cells  that are going crazy, stem cells that cannot regulate their own growth, and are therefore killing patients. That’s my research,” he said.

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In the book, Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa describes entering the United States as a teenager on a tourist visa and working illegally over a long summer as a farm worker. He was caught and later succeeded in entering the United States and benefited from the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which gave legal status to many undocumented immigrants. With little knowledge of English, he entered community college in San Joaquin, later graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a degree in medicine from Harvard Medical School.

In the current immigration climate, the study says highly skilled foreign-born individuals often struggle to get through the system.

“These individuals are stuck in holding patterns for an extraordinary amount of time,” said Adam S. Cohen, assistant general counsel and manager of immigration services at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“Even if they receive a National Interest Waiver our physician-researchers could wait several years for permanent residence.”

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