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Exemption sought for foreign physicians in next immigration ban

The American Medical Association wants the Trump administration to protect international medical graduates against future restrictions

A healthcare worker conducts a COVID-19 test Tuesday at a drive-thru testing facility at George Washington University.
A healthcare worker conducts a COVID-19 test Tuesday at a drive-thru testing facility at George Washington University. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The American Medical Association has asked the Trump administration to exclude foreign medical workers from any future immigration bans, highlighting their “critical” role in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. 

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In a letter sent Monday to Vice President Mike Pence, the association asked that international medical graduates on J-1 student visas, H-1B specialty work visas, and O-1 “extraordinary ability” visas be “exempt from any future immigration bans or limitations so that these physicians can maintain their lawful non-immigrant status while responding to the urgent COVID-19 pandemic.”

The AMA, the largest association of U.S. physicians, noted that half of all physicians in the country currently work using these so-called nonimmigrant work visas.  

Pence heads the White House coronavirus task force.

The organization’s request comes in the context of a proclamation, signed April 22 by President Donald Trump, that temporarily bars the entry of certain immigrants hoping to move to the United States on a permanent basis. The proclamation mentions the administration would consider additional actions targeting work visas within the next 30 days.

[Trump issues narrow order suspending immigration amid pandemic]

The United States has a shortage of physicians and other health care workers, especially in rural counties and other areas that may have high poverty rates and incidence of multiple chronic diseases. International medical professionals often fill those gaps in health care, the physicians’ association noted in the letter.

“The U.S. health care workforce relies upon health professionals and scientists from other countries to provide high-quality and accessible patient care,” the AMA said. “As such, during this pandemic, it is more critical than ever to ensure that the U.S. has a fair and efficient immigration system that strengthens the American health care system and advances the nation’s health security.” 

In March, the AMA also sent a letter to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, and to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, recommending ways to ease the arrival of foreign medical workers cleared to come to America. That letter asked that foreign students scheduled to begin residencies in the United States in the coming months be allowed to have their applications processed — or expedited, as needed — at U.S. consulates abroad. Foreign processing of visas has largely been halted during the pandemic. 

Recognizing existing shortages of medical workers, a bipartisan group of senators recently introduced new legislation that would dole out 40,000 unused green card slots to foreign health care workers, including doctors already in the United States on work visas that restrict their ability to respond to the pandemic. 

[Green card bill would bring more foreign doctors, nurses to US]

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime stalwart of immigration-related legislation, unveiled the bill last week with his colleagues, Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Coons, D-Del.

“This is a really surgical intervention, to use a relevant term,” Bruce Morrison, a former congressman who lobbies for the American Hospital Association, said at the time. He called the solution posed in the bill “a tailored and targeted response” to the nation’s shortage of medical professionals.

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