Dems Want Visa Rules Lifted For Medical Staff Amid Outbreak

By Sarah Martinson
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Law360 (April 7, 2020, 1:03 PM EDT) -- The Trump administration should speed up the processing of visa applications for foreign medical workers and lift employment restrictions to fill a growing shortage of health care workers needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic, more than 60 House Democrats said.

In a Monday letter spearheaded by Reps. Tony Cárdenas and Zoe Lofgren of California, the Democrats urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State to extend work authorization for foreign health care workers currently employed in the U.S. and to allow foreign doctors to work in states other than the ones they are licensed to practice in.

The U.S. already had a shortage of health care workers and the coronavirus is exposing front-line doctors and nurses to greater risk, the Democrats said.

"As this crisis will undoubtedly continue to take its toll on these professionals, we must do everything in our power to build and retain a robust workforce," the letter said.

The Democrats made seven recommendations in the letter, including speeding up the processing of applications, extending work authorizations, allowing foreign health care workers to quickly move between locations and permitting immigrant doctors to work in states where they are not licensed. DHS component U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department should create agency teams to implement these recommendations, the lawmakers said.

The State Department specifically should issue a statement saying foreign resident doctors are allowed to be placed on new rotations as needed and institute emergency visa processing for doctors wishing to participate in medical training or education in the U.S., they said.

The number of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. has exceeded 11,000 and more than 350,000 virus cases have been confirmed as of Tuesday morning, according to the University of Virginia's database.

The U.S. health care system currently employs 1.5 million foreign medical workers and could tap an additional 263,000 immigrants and refugees with health-related undergraduate degrees for help, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.

USCIS has relaxed some of its rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including by allowing scanned or photocopied original signatures and giving employers additional time to respond to deficiency notices on visa applications.

But in a lawsuit last week, the American Immigration Lawyers Association accused DHS and USCIS of not making enough accommodations for visa applicants during the pandemic, saying that filing deadlines need to be extended because attorneys cannot meet them as states enact shelter-in-place orders and nonessential businesses shut down.

And in February, health care staffing company MedPro alleged in a lawsuit against the same agencies that delays to H-1B visa processing for medical professionals has further exacerbated a shortage of much-needed health care workers to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

DHS and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

--Additional reporting by Alyssa Aquino and Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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