In the midst of this pandemic, I’m confident that you will agree that we should continue to emphasize our gratitude to all of the healthcare workers who have been taking care of patients with COVID-19. When others were advised to stay at home as much as possible, nurses and doctors across the U.S. worked around the clock as they directly faced an unknown virus. Putting their lives on the line to help others means they undoubtedly check the “Hero” box. These essential healthcare workers are determined to help our country withstand and recover from the pandemic.
It should also be highlighted that many of our healthcare heroes were not born in the United States. While one out of seven individuals in our country is an immigrant, one out of six nurses and one out of four physicians in America are immigrants. One out of four direct-care workers in long-term care facilities was born outside of the U.S. Further, two of the developers of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were immigrants or children of immigrants. Altogether, immigrants are an important piece of the equation as we rebound from the pandemic.
Aside from learning the English language and getting accustomed to driving on the right-side of the road, immigrant healthcare workers have faced challenging hurdles. For instance, foreign-born physicians often have strict restrictions placed upon them due to their respective visa terms; they must work within the healthcare facility listed on their visas and cannot work at multiple hospitals. This was an issue especially in the pandemic’s first wave, where the governor of New York urged healthcare workers to come to the state to treat patients with coronavirus if they did not have a healthcare crisis in their own communities. A large number of foreign health workers were eager to answer the call but could not assist other hospitals. Further, visa terms limit the scope of their clinical practices to particular specialties. Consequently, foreign-born physicians are not able to fully utilize their knowledge and skills in ways that would greatly benefit patients. Several major hospitals had to shut down elective procedures in order to free up staff. Immigrant healthcare workers also face the risk of losing their work authorization and being required to leave the country if their respective hospital closes or if they are affected by a prolonged illness. Such hurdles are difficult to face as many immigrant healthcare workers call the United States their home, and are proud to serve their communities. They are long-term and integral members of those communities as it often takes over a decade to become a lawful permanent U.S. resident for a foreign-born physician once academics and training are complete.
Despite the hurdles, immigrants provide dynamic healthcare services. In addition to speaking languages of underserved populations, immigrant direct-care workers are more likely to work nontraditional shifts while filling key shortages in under-resourced nursing homes. Physicians on J-1 visas can elect to offer medical services to designated underserved communities or at a Veterans Administration hospital. The election allows them to waive a visa requirement that requires them to return to their home countries for two years before they can apply for permanent U.S. residency or an H-1B visa. Accordingly, foreign-born physicians disproportionately assist rural and urban underserved regions in the U.S. Further, research has shown that there are not enough doctors graduating from U.S. medical schools to bridge the expanding gap between supply and demand for physicians. This is especially true for underserved areas. The Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that demand for registered nurses in the U.S. is projected to rise from 2.9 to 3.4 million by 2026. An additional 203,700 nurses are needed each year to fill new positions and replace retiring ones; in 2018, only 170,000 nurses became licensed. Simply put, immigrant healthcare workers play an essential role in our health care system.
Medical associations, hospital operators, and immigrant groups know firsthand just how important immigrant healthcare workers are and have been advocating on their behalf. There seems to be backing to re-invigorate stalled legislation that would recapture unused green cards from previous years and allocate them to foreign-born nurses and doctors. In contrast to how green cards are issued each year, this allocation would be irrespective of one’s country of birth. The legislation would ultimately provide 25,000 nurses and 15,000 doctors with green cards. Such legislation would be quite welcome by applicants who have been waiting for a green card for over a decade. It would certainly help the healthcare sector as many hospital staffs would benefit from the additional support.
So, yes, many healthcare workers who work around the clock on behalf of patients were born abroad. Many of them face unique circumstances yet continue to provide dynamic services within the medical field. I urge you to support the efforts to recognize their importance by ensuring they have a future here because regardless of where a nurse or doctor was born, they are essential to the U.S. comeback.