Changes to Visa Program Put Foreign-Born Doctors in Limbo

By: - May 23, 2017 12:00 am

Dr. Fadel Nammour obtained an H-1B visa in 2002, enabling him to move to Fargo, North Dakota, where he operates a gastroenterology practice. President Donald Trump has ordered a review of the H-1B program and suspended expedited processing of applications, which could hamper the recruitment of doctors to medically underserved areas.

© Courtesy of the Dakota Gastroenterology Clinic

Just a few months ago, the future appeared promising and certain for Dr. Sunil Sreekumar Nair. A citizen of the United Kingdom, he was completing his residency in internal medicine at a Brooklyn hospital, and he had accepted a job in a hospital near Fort Smith, Arkansas, a rural area with a severe shortage of doctors.

Then the Trump administration announced that it was suspending the 15-day expedited process to obtain an H-1B visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign-born workers in specialty fields such as medicine and information technology. Now Nair may not receive his new visa for at least eight months, long after he is supposed to show up for his new job in Arkansas.

The Arkansas hospital has offered to keep the job open for him, but Nair isn’t even sure he’ll be able to stay in the country after his original visa expires with the end of his medical residency next month.

“To say I am frustrated would be an extreme understatement,” Nair said last week.

In addition to suspending the expedited application process, President Donald Trump in April ordered a review of the entire H-1B program.

For parts of the country that have difficulty attracting American-born doctors, the uncertainty swirling around the H-1B program is already creating problems, with doctors tied up in legal uncertainty rather than treating patients.

“For us, this has been a very positive program that has brought health care to areas of Wisconsin that would otherwise go without,” said Lisa Boero, legal counsel for the immigration program at the Marshfield Clinic Health System, which operates more than 50 clinics through largely rural central and northern Wisconsin, areas with a shortage of doctors.

Hospitals in distressed urban neighborhoods also rely on foreign-born medical school graduates to fill medical residencies that might otherwise go vacant.

“Who else is going to do the work if we lost them?” asked Conrad Fischer, the medical residency program director at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, where Nair is chief medical resident. “We would have to close down.”

This year, for the first time in five years, the number of applicants for H-1B visas dipped below 200,000. However, immigration experts say it’s too soon to attribute that drop to Trump’s policies or anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric in the U.S. 

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Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.