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Before this year, the University of Washington threw away the applications from medical-school hopefuls who came into the United States illegally, even if they’d lived here most of their lives.

Now, after a lobbying effort by its own students, the UW School of Medicine has joined a few dozen others across the nation that have quietly started to allow such students to apply to medical school. The change opens up the last part of the university that barred them.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Benji Perin, a third-year UW medical student who led the effort to change the school policy.

A year ago, only one U.S. medical school accepted undocumented students. Now, at least 35 of the nation’s other medical schools will accept students who are enrolled in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives them a temporary, quasi-legal status.

Undocumented students have long been welcome as undergraduates and graduates at schools across the nation, even before DACA was created two years ago. In 2003, a Washington state law also granted in-state tuition to undocumented students who grew up in this state.

“We felt we were really catching up to the rest of the UW,” said Carol Teitz, associate dean for admissions at the medical school. In addition to being enrolled in DACA, medical-school applicants must also meet certain residency requirements for their state.

Still, Teitz does not think the university will receive many DACA student applicants, and noted that competition for Washington’s 120 medical-school seats is fierce, with 6.8 applicants for every spot.

Supporters acknowledged that admitting DACA students may not sit well with those who already think DACA undermines U.S. immigration law by temporarily giving legal status to people who entered the country without legal permission. And it comes at a time when state policymakers say there are too few medical-school seats available.

But students say expanding the pool of students who can become doctors will only improve medical care.

“There was a time when people were anxious about the increased competition from women coming to medical school,” Perin said.

Daniel Low, a third-year medical student, called it a false dichotomy of “us versus them” to suggest that DACA students could take seats away from students born in this country.

“We’re all ‘us’ — we all live in Washington, went to school together and care deeply about providing the best health care possible to our community,” he said. “So there is no ‘them.’ ”

The UW students were inspired by a Seattle Times story about a UW graduate who could not apply for medical school here because his parents had brought him to the U.S. illegally from Mexico when he was a baby.

The students created a website and began lobbying the administration.

“It was indeed a group of very enterprising students” who convinced the school to make a policy change, Teitz said.

The DACA program temporarily suspends deportation and gives participants authorization to work in the U.S. It was created through executive order by the Obama administration and could be rescinded by a future administration.

Teitz said the school wrestled with concerns that the federal policy could change, but was swayed by the fact that so many other medical schools are now accepting DACA students. She also noted that the UW medical school’s mission statement includes a commitment to building and sustaining a diverse community of faculty, staff and students, and a responsibility to meet the needs of diverse populations in the region.

The Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Chicago was the first school to accept DACA students, and enrolled seven of them this year.

By this summer, the Association of American Medical Colleges counted 35 schools that will accept DACA students.

“That was a surprise for many of us, because schools were not necessarily sharing that information in a very public way,” said Geoffrey Young, the association’s senior director for student affairs and programs.

The UW runs the only public school of medicine for five Western states, including Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Its enrollment is overwhelmingly white; Hispanic students make up only 4.4 percent of the enrollment. This state’s population is about 12 percent Hispanic, and the population of the five-state region served by the medical school is about 10 percent Hispanic.

Most people with DACA status were born in Mexico.

There’s increasing concern in Eastern Washington that the state needs more doctors to practice in that part of the state. During the past year, the UW has been at odds with Washington State University over how best to grow the number of doctors practicing primary medicine there; WSU would like to build its own medical school in Spokane, while the UW would like to increase the number of spots in its own medical school but have those new students train in Eastern Washington.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.