Foreign-Born Doctors Treating COVID-19 Patients in the U.S. Face Uncertainty Over Visas

The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.

Doctors and medical professionals across the nation are battling in the frontlines in a bid to save their patients from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As if fighting against a deadly virus wasn’t enough, a large subset of those medical heroes are also struggling with uncertainties over their visas to work in the country they now call home.

More than one-in-four doctors practicing in the U.S. are foreign-born and many of them are on visas that limit where they can legally work. According to The Intercept, more than 40 percent of the trainees in pulmonology and critical care medicine—who are crucial in the fight against COVID-10—were born outside of the U.S. This shows how dependent the U.S. is on foreign workers in vital industries, including healthcare, the tech sector, agriculture and hospitality.

Meanwhile, an estimated one-in-five pharmacists, one-in-six registered nurses and about 23 percent of home health, psychiatric and nursing aides are also immigrants, a study by the medical journal JAMA found.

Many of the doctors on work visas come from India, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) vice president Allen Orr explained to The North Star. Of those Indian doctors on H-1B visas, most are waiting years to obtain their green cards.

“In that cohort of people that we’re talking about [having] H-1B…there are the Indian nationals who have been waiting a long time, who should have had a green card, but based on their country of birth, they don't,” Orr said, referencing the quotas associated with the H-1B visas and gaining residency. “That’s the only reason they don’t have a green card, right? If they were French or from some other country, they would have had a green card by now.”

Allowing these doctors to quickly obtain their green cards would not only open up spots in the H-1B program, but would also allow them to travel within the U.S. to where they are needed most.

What are J-1 and H-1B Visas?

The J-1 and H-1B visas are both temporary work visas that have limitations on the period of time people are allowed to be in the U.S. According to the State Department, the J-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa for individuals approved to participate in work-and-study-based exchange visitor programs. Orr explained that J-1 visas are typically short-term and doctors on J-1 visas sometimes move towards applying for H-1B visas.

H-1B visas, which are typically associated with the tech industry, are reserved for immigrants who want to perform services in a specialty occupation, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These visas are typically given for longer periods of time and, like the J-1 visa, are worksite specific, Orr told TNS.

Because these visas are worksite specific, visa-holding doctors can’t work or volunteer at hospitals that might need their help during the pandemic. On March 30, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called on healthcare workers across the U.S. to travel to New York to help the state battle against the devastating outbreak in New York City, CNBC reported.

“Help New York. We are the ones who are hit now,” Cuomo said at a press conference at the Jacob K. Javits Center. The governor, whose state has been the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, said that New Yorkers will be eager to return the favor once the virus makes its way across the country.

Unless the federal government does something, doctors on H-1B visas will be unable to heed that call. Hospitals that choose to lend out their visa-holding doctors to other hospitals are bogged down by prohibitive paperwork. Orr said that by the time employers complete the paperwork, those doctors may not be as useful in the areas that initially requested them.

Shantanu Singh, an experienced critical care physician trained in pulmonology, told The Intercept that because he’s on J-1 visa, it is illegal for him to travel to New York to help out despite having the time off from his hospital in Huntington, West Virginia. “My skills are not being used in this country,” Singh said.

Visa Processing Cut Short

While some doctors are being limited in the help they can provide, other foreign-born doctors are facing other visa-related issues. Due to the coronavirus, the federal government has halted or severely scaled back visa processing services.

This means that immigrant doctors applying for H-1B visas or medical graduates matched with U.S. residencies are stuck in limbo. Those international medical graduates have until July to obtain their J-1 visas.

Vidit Bhargava, a 32-year-old pediatric critical-care fellow working in Stanford University’s healthcare system, told The Los Angeles Times that he has worked legally in the U.S. since 2014 thanks to a J-1 visa. Bhargava, who is from India, said he received a full-time position in Alabama and was applying for an H-1B visa. That process is now on hold.

“There is a real possibility that once I’m done with this process, not only [may I not] have a job; I may be an illegal immigrant in a country where I’m sweating it out every day in the hospital,” he told the newspaper.

With more than two dozen COVID-19 cases in the Stanford hospital system, Bhargava said he doesn’t want to have to focus on his visa status when there’s work to be done. “It’s actually terrifying when I think about the fact that I’ve invested so many years of my life here….[I could] have no job security, no security of where we live,” he added.

How to Support

Orr encouraged everyone to call their representatives in Congress to support legislation that would specifically help foreign-born doctors and medical professionals in the U.S. He noted that the federal government is doing little if anything at all to address these issues.

AILA has put its support behind the Resolving Extended Limbo for Immigrant Employees and Families (RELIEF) Act, which aims to eliminate the family and employment green card backlog over five years, eliminates the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigrants and other issues relating to the families of visa-holders.

Orr also urged readers to follow and support three organizations, including his own:

At the end of each story we publish about the coronavirus, we are now sharing the following information:

Coronavirus 411

Coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2 but also known as COVID-19, is a novel virus that causes a number of respiratory illnesses, including lung lesions and pneumonia. The virus spreads easily from person to person through the air when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.

COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has spread to 185 countries. More than 1.61 million people around the world have become infected and more than 97,000 people have died. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency on March 13. Less than two weeks later, on March 26, the United States surpassed China in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can take between two to 14 days to appear. The CDC recommends calling your doctor if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19 and develop symptoms, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing. If you also experience persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and bluish lips or face, seek medical attention immediately.

In order to keep yourself and others safe, be sure to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing and avoid touching your face. The CDC is recommending that gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks. Click here for information on how to prepare for a quarantine.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.