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Immigrant Doctors Want To Help Fight Coronavirus Outbreak, But Can't


One in 4 doctors in the U.S. is an immigrant. Many want to be on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak but can't because their work visas won't allow it. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, that's just one way immigrant communities are affected.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: From the hospital where he works in South Carolina, Dr. Kiran Nagarajan has been watching the coronavirus crisis explode in other parts of the country.

KIRAN NAGARAJAN: There's dire need of physicians, especially in places like New York, New Jersey. I wish I can go and help there.

ROSE: But like many other doctors, he can't. Dr. Nagarajan is here on a temporary visa, one that only allows him to work at the hospital in South Carolina that hired him. He often travels to New Jersey, where his wife works, near the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. He just can't work there.

NAGARAJAN: I'm literally doing nothing there, but I can't work (laughter).

ROSE: So you just will be locked down in your house when you could be in the hospital trying to help.

NAGARAJAN: Absolutely. That's very true.

ROSE: There are thousands of doctors from India and elsewhere who are working in the U.S. on temporary visas like Nagarajan's. If they want to change jobs while they're here, they have to apply to transfer their visas. But last week, the agency in charge of legal immigration, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, closed its offices to the public and cut back on services. That means much longer processing times for work visas. And that's just one concern.

GREG SISKIND: We're hearing now from teaching hospitals that we represent that are in panic mode.

ROSE: Greg Siskind is an immigration lawyer in Tennessee. He's talking about a huge problem looming this summer, when 4,000 international doctors are supposed to begin their residencies at U.S. hospitals. But work at U.S. Embassies abroad has slowed, so those doctors may not get their visas in time.

SISKIND: We're dealing with those kinds of issues day in, day out of how you actually continue on when necessary functions in the immigration system are not happening.

ROSE: Coronavirus is disrupting the immigration system at nearly every level. Green card and citizenship interviews are also suspended. And it's not just legal immigrants who are affected. Immigrants in the country illegally are afraid of being deported if they come forward to get tested and treated for coronavirus. President Trump was asked about that earlier this week.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are undocumented persons welcome at testing sites? And can they show up and be tested without fear?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yes. I'll answer that. And if that's not the policy, I'll make it the policy.

ROSE: But his administration has been sending mixed signals. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is suspending most arrests and focusing only on criminals. Then, an administration official emphasized that deportations would continue. Advocates say immigrants don't know what to believe.

Doug Rand is a former Obama administration official who now runs an immigration law firm.

DOUG RAND: You can imagine the confusion and terror that's rippling through the immigrant community at this point.

ROSE: And some legal immigrants fear they could become targets if their visas expire while immigration offices are closed. Rana Akkawi is an immigrant from Lebanon who's teaching at a school in Memphis. She was supposed to get married this week to her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen.

RANA AKKAWI: We had to cancel the wedding. We didn't want to put anyone's life at risk. But at the same time, I'm faced with this reality that - what am I going to do?

ROSE: Akkawi's visa expires at the end of the school year, so she planned to apply for a green card. But to get it, Akkawi she still has to get married. Now she's scrambling to find someone who can perform the wedding.

AKKAWI: My boyfriend and I are both born into Christian families but we don't practice religion. But I might have (laughter) a rabbi marry me right now.

ROSE: Akkawi says she can't afford to be picky if she wants to stay here with her husband.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "GLIDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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