AAIHR urges Congress to recapture old, unused visas for qualified international nurses

AAIHR urges Congress to recapture old, unused visas for qualified international nurses
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James Richardson, 202-408,9160
James.Richardson@Dentons.com

WASHINGTON—The American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment, the premier advocate for foreign-educated healthcare workers, on Tuesday called for Congress to recapture previously unused visas for qualified international nurses to help meet the unprecedented challenges of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the first COVID-19 infection last year, the United States was dangerously low on nurses—as many as one-in-eight nursing positions will go unfilled this year. Now, as the system begins to buckle under the weight of the pandemic, the country must find a way to grow its clinician base quickly.

Today there are upwards of 15,000 qualified overseas nurses who have passed background checks and US licensure and English language proficiency tests but cannot get their visas processed by the State Department because of a green card freeze. This retrogression, which regulates numerically limited categories of immigration, means thousands of qualified nurses who have otherwise cleared every other immigration hurdle cannot come to the United States.

“COVID-19 is the most significant public health crisis in a generation, and now more than ever we need nurses,” Shari Costantini, R.N., the president of the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment, said. “There are thousands of qualified international nurses who could come to America tomorrow but have been blocked by a bureaucratic doorman. Congress can and must lift this visa retrogression.”

Visa issuance within numerically limited immigration categories like those that apply to nurses is capped annually by Congress. Since 1921, Congress has allocated 25.3 million visas under numerically limited green card categories. In 72 of the previous 98 years, successive administrations have issued fewer visas than were made available by Congress.

In total, the government only issued 20.6 million green cards, leaving a 4.5 million surplus of apportioned but unused visas, according to an analysis by the Cato Institute. Without authorizing any new visas, Congress could recapture old, unused green cards for nurses and other critical-need healthcare workers. 

There’s precedent for this, too. In 2005, in response to a widening nursing shortage that contributed to the country’s inability to care for those affected by the Global War on Terror, Congress granted a one-time allotment of 50,000 unused visas for registered nurses. 

“Even before this crisis, hospitals were struggling to maintain nurse-patient ratios to ensure quality care,” AAIHR Vice Chair Patty Jeffrey said. “We can’t bring enough nurses out of retirement and training new nurses take time. Recapturing old, unused visas for qualified international nurses is the fastest way to get the nurses we need now to ensure American patients receive the care they need and deserve.”

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