International Medical Education

Extending IMG visas would boost efforts to fight COVID-19

What’s the news: The AMA is advocating for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to temporarily extend visas automatically for one year and expedite approvals of extensions and changes of status for non-U.S. citizen international medical graduates (IMGs) practicing or otherwise lawfully present in the country.

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There is an urgent need to take these actions because of the extraordinary circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic that require the services of every available physician to address and because administrative tasks that are inordinately burdensome under normal conditions have become even more difficult to complete in a timely manner during the public health emergency.

“The heightened demands currently placed upon physicians and their employers coupled with the difficulties their attorneys are facing in properly filing the necessary and often lengthy paperwork—and which cannot always be achieved completely online—makes renewal or request for a status change virtually impossible to accomplish during this time—especially with USCIS closing most of its facilities and stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders in effect,” AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, wrote in a letter to Kenneth Cuccinelli, the USCIS acting director.

Concern was also raised when a presidential executive order was issued April 22 suspending the issuance of immigration visas. William W. Pinsky, MD, the president and CEO of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, clarified the matter in a video interview with Todd Unger, the AMA’s chief experience officer.

“We all had a little bit of a scare the other day,” Dr. Pinsky said. But he clarified that “essential personnel” such as health care workers—and physicians in particular—were excluded from the executive order.

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Additionally, the AMA is calling on the administration to extend the current 60-day maximum grace period to a 180-day grace period to allow any non-U.S. citizen IMG who has been furloughed or laid off as a result of the pandemic to remain in the U.S. and to try and find new employment.

In addition, the AMA is urging the administration to protect the spouses and dependent children of physicians with H-1B visas by automatically granting a one-year extension of their H-4 visas so that the families of these physicians are not separated during the pandemic.

Why it’s important: Non-U.S. citizen IMGs play a critical role in providing health care, especially in areas of the country with higher rates of poverty and chronic disease. Nearly 21 million people in the U.S. live in areas where foreign-trained physicians account for at least half of the local physician workforce.

“Our non-U.S. citizen IMGs need to be able to immediately use their knowledge and training to save lives during this unprecedented time in history without fear of the loss of their, or their dependents’, immigration statuses,” Dr. Madara wrote.

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While the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the urgency, the AMA has been advocating for years on physician visa issues. This includes opposing polices that create unnecessary stress for IMG physicians and their families and exacerbate the physician workforce shortage by limiting the ability of certain non-US citizen IMGs to receive a visa or green card.

To learn more: IMG physicians are a critical part of the U.S. health care workforce and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the AMA has been advocating on their behalf to ensure that visa-related issues do not stop their ability to continue to care for patients.

The AMA advocacy efforts have been summarized in an IMG resource guide . Also included in the guide is information on visa processing, license examinations, and family visa matters.

Physicians can stay up to date on all of the AMA’s COVID-19 advocacy efforts and track the fast-moving pandemic with the AMA's COVID-19 resource center, which offers a library of the most current resources from JAMA Network™, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization.