A sizable population of foreign-born physicians are already living and working in the United States and supporting the COVID-19 response. In fact, more than 29% of active physicians in the U.S. are foreign-born non-U.S. citizens. Our existing immigration laws and policies limit their ability to work where and how they are most needed when they come to the U.S.
Many foreign-born physicians are working in the U.S. on a temporary “nonimmigrant” visa such as an H-1B. H-1B visa holders are only allowed to work for the employer sponsoring them, filling a specific job at a specific worksite, all of which is detailed in their labor condition application filed with the Department of Labor, as well as their petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
This means that H-1B holders are generally not allowed to work, even temporarily, in different geographic locations or worksites other than the one listed on their filings. This prevents doctors on H-1B visas from relocating to hard-hit regions, or even working in other departments within their own hospital. While these provisions are generally intended to ensure fair pay for U.S. citizens and foreign-nationals working in the U.S., the current restrictions are preventing doctors from being able to go where their skills are most-needed at a time when access to health care professionals for many communities is literally a matter of life or death.
For example, an infectious disease specialist working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on an H-1B visa would not be able to temporarily assist Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York to address the overwhelming number of individuals seeking life-saving treatment for COVID-19. Even within their own hospitals, doctors who are approved for a certain specialty or within a certain department are concerned that they might violate the terms of their visa if they work in a different area. In the midst of a national crisis, these visa restrictions trap professionals on the sidelines when they could be supporting critical response efforts and saving patients’ lives.
Across all visa types, immigrant workers are concerned about maintaining their legal status and their work authorization during this unprecedented pandemic. As all but five states have implemented some sort of shelter-in-place order, combined with the closure of USCIS offices across the country, immigrants in temporary “nonimmigrant” status face significant challenges to completing immigration requirements and submitting materials necessary to maintain their status, as well as crushing uncertainty about whether and when their filings will be processed.
Even post-coronavirus crisis, Americans in need of medical care will undoubtedly be harmed unless the current restrictions are lifted, because many qualified medical professionals will struggle to secure a visa in the first place. This is due to the limited number of H-1B visas available (in FY21, there were 275,000 applications for only 85,000 spots), the extraordinary wait times for green cards (more than a decade in some cases) and limited opportunities for medical school graduates to stay in the country after finishing their education and training, not to mention the difficulty of navigating state and local licensing requirements.
Without action, the U.S. will not only lose physicians who could help fight the COVID-19 crisis and save American lives today, but will continue to lose them in the long-term, as foreign-born health care professionals seek work in other countries, such as Canada or Australia, which have more welcoming immigration programs.