USCIS eases visa restrictions for some foreign doctors

The changes will give these physicians some flexibility to practice in locations hit hard by the pandemic

Some foreign doctors will have more flexibility to help in locations where they are needed.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Some foreign doctors will have more flexibility to help in locations where they are needed. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 13, 2020 at 6:01pm

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has waived certain visa restrictions so that foreign doctors assigned to rural communities may practice telehealth services outside their approved locations during the coronavirus pandemic.

The waivers will only apply to foreign doctors in the Conrad 30 program, which allows foreign medical physicians to practice in specific rural, underserved communities in the United States using non-immigrant H-1B visas.

Under a memo issued Monday by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, these doctors now may expand their practice through telemedicine health services outside of their immediate community to areas within their assigned state.

USCIS will continue to "assess various options in coordination with DHS as the situation evolves" amid the current national emergency, the agency said in a statement issued Wednesday by spokesman Matthew Bourke.

Each state, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam may sponsor up to 30 foreign medical graduates a year for a three-year commitment under the Conrad 30 program, Bourke said. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Wednesday that USCIS had confirmed to her office earlier in the week that the waivers also would allow foreign doctors in the Conrad 30 program to actually provide medical care at locations beyond the area they received approval for in their immigration status.

That was in response to a letter Klobuchar and a coalition of Democratic lawmakers sent to DHS leaders last month, urging them to ease restrictions on where program doctors could practice so they could help medical staff in locations with high COVID-19 rates.

“Doctors need to be able to act now to use their knowledge and training to save lives without fear of the loss of their immigration status,” the lawmakers said in their letter.

CQ Roll Call, seeking additional guidance on whether Conrad 30 doctors could practice telemedicine outside their designated areas, did not hear back immediately from USCIS.

Some immigration attorneys said the federal government needs to do more than loosen telemedicine rules for foreign doctors who want to help health care professionals and hospitals experiencing staffing shortages amid the pandemic.

“It wasn't a broad policy change that addressed all the issues that we’re seeing but certainly, for the limited narrow scope that this memo has, is welcome,” Elissa Taub, an immigration lawyer based in Memphis, Tenn., who specializes in visas for foreign physicians, told CQ Roll Call.

Since the pandemic first began, immigration groups and attorneys have called on the Trump administration to provide foreign doctors with more flexibility to travel to areas where they are needed the most.

Earlier this month, the American Medical Association urged Vice President Mike Pence in a letter to allow international medical graduates on J-1 student visas, H-1B specialty work visas, and O-1 "extraordinary ability" visas to be exempt from any future immigration bans or limitations during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The U.S. health care workforce relies upon health professionals and scientists from other countries to provide high-quality and accessible patient care," the organization, the largest association of U.S. physicians, wrote in their letter. "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.”

More than 10,000 foreign medical residents are currently in the country on special J-1 and H-1B visas, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.