The U.S. has been facing a critical health care worker shortage that was concerning way before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. “Staffing shortages are now the nation’s top patient safety concern,” U.S. News World and Report said in July.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing this past week, California Senator Alex Padilla said immigrants could help bolster this workforce. “There are thousands of highly qualified health care professionals living abroad with dreams of coming to America to study, train in their profession, and ultimately save lives.” However, many remain hindered by an outdated immigration system.
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Padilla said during Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety hearing on Wednesday that even as the nation faces “unprecedented” health care worker shortages, “the laws that limit the immigration of highly trained health care workers have gone largely unreformed since the 1990s.”
“There continue to be backlogs in processing green cards for critical health care workers,” he said. “There are annual caps to employment-based visa categories that have not been met and per country caps that should be updated to meet the demand of the health care industry. And many of the essential workers we relied on at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic still risk uncertainty with their legal status in America.”
He’s pointing to thousands of health care workers who don’t have permanent status, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders. “There are around 34,000 DACA recipients and 11,600 TPS holders working in the health care field,” Padilla continued.
Back at the start of the pandemic, we wrote about DACA recipient Manuel Bernal, an emergency medicine physician in training at Chicago’s Advocate Christ Medical Center. “We’re basically risking our lives,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “But I also understand it’s part of the job I signed up for. I think it’s worth it when I see some patients come in who are extremely ill, and I’m able to intervene.”
Ana Cueva, another DACA recipient, is an intensive care nurse who traveled from her home in Utah to help treat patients in California. She credited the nurses who helped care for her mom after cancer for inspiring her to become a nurse as well. "She would tell me how the nurses at the hospital helped her through a difficult time,” she told CNN.
“We know immigrant health care workers can help to fill this gap and provide critical care to so many communities in need,” Padilla said. “How? Because, in large part, they already are. One in every four physicians and one in every six nurses is an immigrant in the United States.” Padilla’s office said that panelists “emphasized how immigrant physicians have already stepped up to fill the gaps in underserved areas and how lifting restrictions would increase access to health care services for that population.”
In Illinois, one initiative provides a model of how this critical shortage can be filled, by aiding immigrants who have international medical training and are working to gain U.S. licensure. “The Chicago Welcome Back Center program is based on the national Welcome Back Initiative’s model, and will assist participants in exploring and pursuing alternative careers in health care while they are on the path towards licensure,” a release said last month.
Padilla’s first bill after being appointed to the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris was a bill putting undocumented immigrants who have served as essential workers during the pandemic on a pathway to citizenship. The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act would affect up to 5 million people. But despite the enduring labor of health care workers and farmworkers during the pandemic, the bill has not come to a full vote since being introduced more than a year ago.
“If there’s one thing that the pandemic showed, it was the importance of the essential workers, of whom—many of them, of course, our doctors, our nurses, our health care workers—stretched thin to the brink of exhaustion during the two years of the pandemic, and it’s still not over,” Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said during the hearing.
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