Visa Rules are Preventing Some Doctors and Nurses From Helping U.S. Hospitals in Need

Supermajority Education Fund

March 27, 2020

As hospitals across the country struggle with staffing issues while coping with the coronavirus outbreak, advocates are calling on the government to ease the restrictions many doctors and nurses on work visas currently face.

Of particular concern are the rules for employment for H1-B visas, which are non-immigrant temporary work authorizations given to highly specialized workers. A recent Bloomberg Law report examines how the current rules governing employment for H1-B and other visa holders mean that transferring hospitals or employment is extremely difficult, even during public health emergencies like the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There are these young, U.S.-trained doctors who are ready to go and work and take care of these patients, but our hands are tied,” one doctor told Bloomberg Law. The H1-B visas are tied to employers and typically granted to hospitals in geographic areas that suffer from severe doctor shortages.

“There’s a whole slew of rules that you have to abide by,” Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer who specializes in work visas, told Supermajority News. For example, a doctor who holds an H1-B visa and works at UCLA cannot work in another part of the city experiencing an outbreak without the State Department and immigration authorities approving.

Doctors on what is known as the J-1 visa, which is given to foreign doctors who attended medical school in the United States and then made a commitment to work in an underserved area after graduation, are also affected by these restrictions. So while New York City is at the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis — over 23,000 New Yorkers have confirmed cases of the virus and 385 people in the city have died as of this writing — “Manhattan is not a shortage area under [the Health and Human Services] rules because they are measuring things in a normal environment,” Siskind explained.

Siskind and other immigration advocates say those barriers are why they are calling on the federal government to temporarily suspend the geographic restrictions during the pandemic by declaring the entire country an area experiencing a doctor shortage. 

The coronavirus outbreak also comes as the American healthcare system as a whole has been experiencing staffing shortages for both doctors and nurses. According to Siskind, the nursing shortage is far more acute because foreign nurses, except for those from Canada and Mexico, cannot qualify for work visas of any kind. “The only way nurses can come to the United States is through a green card,” said Siskind, adding that nurses from countries like India and China also have to contend with the decades-long green card backlog. 

“It’s been very difficult to come to the United States period much less during a pandemic,” Siskind noted. “There’s just not an easy path for them.”