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Immigrant Doctors Face Barriers Trying To Volunteer To Help Fight COVID-19 Pandemic


Doctors, nurses and other front-line health care workers are needed around the country. Governor Andrew Cuomo has invited health care workers to come to New York to help. But while many foreign-born health care workers have been lining up to serve, some have been prevented from serving because of their immigration status.

Dr. Ram Alur is an internal medicine physician in Marion, Ill. He's also president of Physicians for American Healthcare Access, a nonprofit that represents foreign-trained doctors. Dr. Alur, thanks so much for being with us.

RAM ALUR: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: I gather you've been practicing medicine in the United States for 13 years under an H-1B visa. But what happened when you tried to sign up to help with the response to the pandemic?

ALUR: I was as disturbed by anybody in the country with the onslaught and the pandemic. I was even more shocked to see how our health care system was stressed in New York. And of all the resources that needed to be deployed, physicians was one important resource. And I wanted to work. I wanted to sign up, but I am on a temporary visa. I am a temporary immigrant worker. My work permit restricts me to my employer, so that was the biggest barrier. We wanted to participate - there are thousands of physicians like me - and we are held back.

SIMON: They just gave you a simple no?

ALUR: Well, it is not in their power, really - the New York government or the hospital managers. I was approached by multiple recruiters, and so were many doctors who are working in the front lines in their communities that are not as overwhelmed as New York is. But we told them this is the restriction, that's how we can participate. And they really didn't have any solution for us.

SIMON: Forgive me for asking you a legal question, but would it take an act of Congress?

ALUR: Absolutely. And I'm very hopeful that a legislative solution for this problem will come as soon as possible, hopefully in the next COVID relief package.

SIMON: What about telehealth? Could you be useful over a video link?

ALUR: Not if it has to go beyond my employer's own facility because it would be considered as a violation of my work authorization.

SIMON: Is there any way you can help with the pandemic response there in Marion in southern Illinois?

ALUR: In southern Illinois, I'm well disposed, and I am actually permitted to work in my facility, and I'll do my best here. But if I have to go 20 miles and work in a neighborhood facility, which when the surge comes might be overwhelmed - the doctors, our front-line workers, health care workers are at higher risk to contract this disease, and it has happened in New York and many places where doctors have to come out of the workforce because they are infected, they are quarantined. So if there is a need, I can't go and work there because, again, my work permit restricts me to my employment in my facility.

SIMON: And the law is there to ostensibly protect American jobs - something like that?

ALUR: Absolutely. The reason why it exists is because the law intends to protect an American worker so that an immigrant worker like me would not go to other locations and work for lower wages. It is intended to protect, but we are a country with a shortage of doctors. Rural counties are even more short. Forty-five percent of the rural county workforce is immigrant. And if immigrants are restricted, it is a vital resource that is underutilized. We are here. We are living here, and we have time. We have scope. We should be doing more.

SIMON: Do you hope the problem you confront now is going to sharpen the conversation and perhaps change hearts and minds and laws?

ALUR: Absolutely. As an organization, we have tremendous support from fellow colleagues who understand how restricted we are - our hospitals, the medical organizations. And we are approaching the lawmakers, and there is great understanding and a sense of urgency. This is a situation where we need all hands on deck.

SIMON: Dr. Ram Alur is an internal medicine physician in Marion, Ill. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

ALUR: Thank you, Scott. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.