Immigration changes necessary for pandemic

In a recent survey, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that 30% of physicians and 17% of registered nurses in the United States were born outside of the country. immigration-mainAbout 23% of home health providers and nursing aides are immigrants, as are 20% of pharmacists.

Never has our reliance on foreign health care workers been as apparent as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in the U.S., hailing from all parts of the globe, have served on the front lines fighting the pandemic, caring for patients, and tirelessly pursuing effective treatments, while putting their personal safety at risk.

While they serve our communities, many foreign-born physicians and nurses face lengthy delays in obtaining lawful permanent resident status (green cards) — sometimes waiting more than 10 years. Green cards are numerically limited, and there are many more applicants than there are available green cards, resulting in significant backlogs. Healthcare workers born in India, China and the Philippines have the longest wait times, as those countries are the birthplace of a majority of U.S. green card applicants.

While they wait for their turn in the green card “line,” healthcare workers remain in non-immigrant visa status (e.g., H-1B), which poses significant limitations on employment. For example, a foreign physician working in an area with few COVID-19 cases cannot simply travel to another state to lend assistance where she is needed. She cannot take a shift at another hospital in the same area where she works. She cannot work full-time hours to help with the pandemic, if the non-immigrant visa filing indicated she would be part-time. Each of these seemingly minor changes in employment require a filing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, a tedious and expensive undertaking that delays healthcare professionals from working where they are critically needed. When an individual holds a green card, she has flexibility in the work location, position, hours worked and employer, allowing healthcare professionals to answer the call to serve where needed, unimpeded.

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