Keep the Faith

Immigration experts are urging Filipino, Chinese and Indian nurses who want to work in the United States to "remain faithful" to that goal despite a current moratorium in the issuance of new visas.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of the Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency responsible for processing immigration applications, has put on hold employment-based visas for foreign nurses in order to clear its backlog.

What this means for foreign nurses is that, instead of getting a work permit in about 60 days, they must now wait up to 3 years to enter the United States.

In theory, the hold applies to all nations, but the Philippines, China and India supply, by far, the largest share of foreign nurses seeking to work in the United States.

According to an October 2004 study by the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health, more than 50,000 nurses had moved to the United States to work in the previous 4 years. More than 28,000 foreign-educated nurses applied for nursing licenses in the United States between January and September 2004. That amounts to 27 percent of all applicants taking the test, and nearly double the number who applied in all of 1999, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. 

USCIS said it would no longer issue employment-based (EB-3) visas for workers in countries that have exceeded their annual quota for green cards until new visas become available. This policy puts on hold processing of visas for workers whose employers petitioned after Jan. 1, 2002. The Philippines, China and India have all met their visa quotas.

Even so, advisers to would-be immigrant nurses urge calm. The nursing shortage in America isn't going away and healthcare employers are already lobbying the U.S. Congress to amend the law on which the new policy is based.

"Thus, it would be safe to assume that the delays in the immigrant visa processing will be temporary, and that solutions to this crisis will be forthcoming," said Wawel Mercado, a spokesperson for Philippines-based PNI International, a recruitment firm. "So if you are truly committed to working as a nurse in the United Sates, the general advice is to remain faithful to the nursing practice, and expect the immigrant visa queue for nurses to return to normal in due time."

In January, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-California) introduced a bill to allot unused visas from other countries to nurses from the Philippines, India and China, thereby circumventing a backlog in visa processing.

"I am outraged that the efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to clear out a backlog of pending immigration cases will be keeping much-needed nurses coming from the Philippines and other countries," said Lantos said. "This is a ridiculous situation, given the shortage of nurses faced by hospitals in California and nationwide."

Meanwhile, recruiting firms, employers and others are urging foreign nurses not to lose heart. In California, JUNO Healthcare Staffing System is offering a series of lectures to explain the new regulations to nurses. In Philadelphia, the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) says it is "expediting" the processing of applicants for whom the retrogression deadline is imminent.

Still, limited visa availability likely will add at least two years to what is already a nine- to 24-month process, said Meladee Stankus, RN, MS, founder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Nurse Immigration USA, which recruits internationally to find nurses for American hospitals.

Blame increased government efficiency in the wake of Sept. 11.

According to Stankus, the temporary EB-3 visas were devised to allow high-demand workers such as nurses to bypass the slow labor-certification process.  

Since Sept. 11, however, the State Department has devoted more resources to speeding up the process. Thousands of newly cleared immigrants lined up for visas, causing the Philippines, China and India to reach their quotas - something that had never happened previously.

"They dumped all these thousands of people into visas, and now they're used," Stankus said. 

Mark E. Dixon is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to ADVANCE.