Immigration Policy Adjustments Needed to Bolster COVID-19 Response

As coronavirus threatens to overwhelm hospitals in areas with large numbers of patients with COVID-19, we are reminded of the importance of our healthcare workforce and the critical role that immigrants play in filling the increasing demand for more healthcare workers.

According to a recent New American Economy study, immigrants, who make up only 13.7% of our total population, already represent a large proportion of healthcare workers in the US. Immigrants make up 28.2% of physicians, 25.3% of home health aides, 19.6% of lab technicians, 15.3% of nurses, and 13.6% of respiratory therapists. The study also revealed the ratio of open healthcare jobs to unemployed healthcare workers in 2018 was 12.3, making it hard to argue that immigrants take healthcare jobs from Americans.

report released by the US Department of Health and Human Services on Monday stated that many hospitals report they do not have adequate staff to meet current or anticipated needs for COVID-19 patients. Compounding the problem, the report said several hospitals could struggle to maintain operations if the people working to treat patients with the virus become sick themselves. The report also said hospitals were already struggling with workforce shortages before COVID-19. 

While the increase in demand for healthcare provides career opportunities for Americans, it will take months and even years for them to obtain the proper training to work in hospitals.

There are several actions the Trump Administration and Congress should take to ensure we have a stable workforce of qualified healthcare professionals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

They should expedite high skill visas for qualified healthcare workers.

They should also authorize the State Department to suspend restrictions on where immigrant doctors who hold H1-Bs and J-1 waivers can work so they can help in harder hit areas. Right now they are restricted to work only at the hospital specified on their visa.

Additionally, the State Department should be directed to extend work authorizations for healthcare professionals with visas that are set to expire soon.

Congress should also get to work on a bipartisan legislative solution to secure the border and allow DACA recipients to earn green cards ahead of the SCOTUS ruling that could potentially revoke their legal status to work. This would allow the 29,000 of them that work in healthcare to continue healing our sick people.

Increasing hospitals’ access to trained professionals as soon as possible will help ensure that Americans will be able to receive the treatment they need. In the long run, it will help to lower the high costs of healthcare for Americans as well. We need more Americans to get into healthcare careers, and we need several policy adjustments to allow qualified immigrants to fill in the gaps now. 


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