Visa freeze worsens America's nursing shortage

The longstanding caps on green cards for foreign-educated nurses are limiting one potential solution to America's severe shortage of healthcare workers. This is a significant issue because as nurses become burned out and leave the field, many hospitals and nursing homes have tried to recruit nurses from abroad to help fill the estimated 200,000 job vacancies per year. However, backlogs in visa applications have slowed the pipeline of international nurses, who currently make up 16% of the country's nursing workforce.

This month, the State Department has once again cut off employment-based visas, known as EB-3, for nurses and other skilled workers for the rest of the fiscal year ending in September. A similar freeze was enacted last year. Now, only those who applied for green cards before December 2021 will be eligible for visa interviews over the next three months. This affects more than 10,000 foreign nurses, according to the American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment.

About 40,000 of these visas are available annually, a cap that has remained unchanged since 1990. As a result, the backlog keeps growing, making it increasingly difficult to bring in nurses fast enough to fill the existing gaps in the nursing workforce. A couple years ago, nurses from certain countries could start working in the U.S. within 18 months of starting their green card process, but now the process takes closer to two and a half years.

A coalition of healthcare groups is supporting a bipartisan bill that would open up 25,000 employment-based visas for nurses by reclaiming unused green cards. However, the bill has not progressed since its introduction in November, and there is little expectation that the current Congress will take up immigration legislation. The Biden administration could also expand nurses' eligibility for H-1B visas, which are reserved for jobs requiring at least a bachelor's degree, though these visas have their own limitations.

Ultimately, while international nurses are not a "silver bullet" to solving the workforce crisis, streamlining the immigration system for healthcare workers could help tap into a global talent pool and bolster the nursing workforce, especially in rural areas where the shortage is more acute. 

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