Immigration System Slowdown Keeps Some Doctors From Coronavirus Front Lines

From the hospital where he works in South Carolina, Dr. Kiran Nagarajan has been watching the coronavirus crisis explode in other parts of the country. But, like many other immigrant doctors, he can’t do anything about it.

“There’s a dire need of physicians especially in places like New York, New Jersey,” Nagarajan said. “I wish I can go and help there.”

Dr. Nagarajan is here on a temporary visa — one that only allows him to work at the hospital in South Carolina that hired him. He often travels to New Jersey, where his wife works. Near the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’m literally doing nothing there,” he said. “But I can’t work.”

One in four doctors in the U.S. is an immigrant. Thousands of them arrive every year to train in the U.S., and stay to work on temporary visas. Many of them, like Nagarajan, want to be on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak.

But they can’t easily transfer their visas to practice in another hospital because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has closed offices to the public and cut back on services.

Coronavirus is disrupting the immigration system at nearly every level. Green card and citizenship interviews are also suspended. Some immigration courts have closed, but others are still open — over the objections of immigration judges and lawyers.

And it’s not just legal immigrants who are affected. Immigrants in the country illegally are afraid of being deported if they come forward to get tested and treated for coronavirus.

“We’re dealing with those kinds of issues day in, day out, of how you actually continue on when necessary functions in the immigration system are not happening,” said Greg Siskind, founding partner of the immigration law firm Siskind Susser PC in Tennessee.

Siskind said the USCIS work slowdown means longer processing times for work visas, and State Department actions in response to coronavirus are also having an impact.

By Joel Rose for N P R
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