Senators Want 40K Unused Visas Given To Doctors, Nurses

By Nadia Dreid
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Law360 (May 1, 2020, 8:10 PM EDT) -- Recapturing unused visas and doling them out to immigrant doctors and nurses might be the solution to the health care worker shortage that has been exacerbating the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new bill floated by a bipartisan quartet of senators.

The bill would free up 40,000 employment-based visa slots for foreign-born doctors and nurses who could help fight the onslaught of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has already killed more than 64,000 across the country.

Dubbed the Healthcare Worker Resiliency Act, the bill is slated to be introduced as soon as the Senate reconvenes and is sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., David Perdue, R-Ga., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Coons, D-Del.

The senators on Thursday described the bill as a "temporary stopgap" to meet the demand for health care workers, which has been growing alongside the number of COVID-19 infections as doctors and nurses also fall prey to the virus as a result of working with insufficient personal protective equipment.

"It is unacceptable that thousands of doctors currently working in the U.S. on temporary visas are stuck in the green card backlog, putting their futures in jeopardy and limiting their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19," Durbin said in a statement.

The United States is already a country that relies heavily on foreign-born doctors and nurses to staff its hospitals, with more than a quarter of the nation's physicians having been born elsewhere. But those without green cards often find their hands bound by immigration restrictions that have been thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic.

The green card backlog keeps growing and crept above 1 million earlier this year. This means that more than 1 million skilled immigrants have been approved for permanent resident status but can't officially get it because of the annual caps.

Thousands of doctors across the country are stuck with temporary visas that prevent them from moonlighting at other hospitals or clinics, blocking them from traveling to help in COVID-19 hot spots and keeping them tied to their hospitals.

"Recapturing" visas is a concept that has been floated from time to time as a way to work around the annual caps that limit how many immigrants are allowed to enter and work in the U.S.

In years when those caps aren't reached, the unused visas basically disappear. So the idea behind recapturing is to circumvent the annual caps by clawing back some of those unused visas to use now.

That's what the senators say this bill would do by pulling back all the employment-based visas that went unused over the last 28 years and handing them out to doctors and nurses whose immigrant worker petitions were filed within 90 days of the end of the national emergency declaration issued by President Donald Trump.

Of the 40,000 visas, the bill would set aside 25,000 for nurses and 15,000 for physicians. Visas would also be made available for the recipients' families from a separate pool of reclaimed visas and would be in addition to the 40,000 for the health care professionals. The bill would also exempt the doctors and nurses from the caps that limit how many immigrants from each country can come to the U.S. each year.

If the doctor or nurse is outside the country at the time they apply, the bill would require their employer to submit a letter swearing that they wouldn't be displacing a U.S. worker.

The bill comes with the endorsement of a slew of immigration and professional medical organizations, including the American Hospital Association and the National Immigration Forum, which have thrown their weight behind the legislation as a way to both partially cure the shortage and help alleviate the long period of waiting for immigrant doctors and nurses.

"International physicians and nurses who are willing and able to fill health care staffing shortages often have to wait years, if not decades, before they can permanently work in the United States," said the The American Immigration Lawyers Association, which lauded the bill as an "important first step."

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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