COVID-19: Immigrants are Essential Workers: Health Care

Immigrants punch far above their weight when it comes to serving at every level of health care delivery.   Their importance in healthcare is only being underscored as the nation confronts COVID-19.

While immigrants were only 13.7% of the U.S. population in 2017, the same as in 1900,  immigrants make up 29% of U.S. doctors, over 23% of dentists, over 20% of U.S. pharmacists, over 16% of registered nurses, and 15% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses,  among other health professionals, according to a 2018 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More recent data from MeBIC partner New American Economy finds that immigrants also make up over 36% of home health care aides, over 25% of personal assistants, over 22% of nursing assistants, nearly 20% of surgeons, and nearly 20% of clinical laboratory technicians.

Even undocumented immigrants play a large role in U.S. healthcare delivery.  New American Economy 2018 data reveals that nearly 280,000 undocumented immigrants are employed nationwide as “healthcare support workers, working as nursing assistants, as health aides, as well as the cleaners and building maintenance workers that keep medical and care facilities running. ”

Immigrants are no less vital to health care delivery in Maine.   They include Ben Okafor, who launched Eastport Family Pharmacy to serve residents in Downeast Maine.  In Portland, immigrants are among the many students at Portland Adult Education who train as CNAs and to perform other essential services in hospitals and rehabilitation and elder care facilities.

Maine’s immigrants are also making the masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE) essential to reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as those working at American Roots in Westbrook and Antoine’s Formal Wear and Tailor Shop in PortlandNew American Economy has found that immigrants make up about 24% of workers making medical equipment and supplies, and manufacturing medicines and pharmaceuticals.

The need for more healthcare workers was acute even before the COVID-19 pandemic.  More than 40% of physicians will reach retirment age in the next decade, according to this statement from the President of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The situation is even more dire in rural areas.  “Doctors in rural counties were also far likelier to be older and closer to retirement, meaning the number of counties with no doctors in the future may rise significantly” according to New American Economy.  MeBIC partners Maine Health and Penobscot Community Health Care confirm that this holds true in Maine, where over 60% of doctors will reach retirement age in the next decade.

U.S. immigration policy, and licensing requirements that are out of date for the times, are impeding the nation’s ability to put talented foreign-born medical professionals to work when and where they are critically needed, as the Cato Institute highlights, including the estimated 29,000 healthcare workers with  DACA status and foreign trained doctors.

A bad situation was made even worse when the State Department suspended all visa interviews at U.S. consulates as of March 20, 2020 due to COVID-19.  Following  pleas from the AMA and others, on April 8, 2020, the State Department agreed to resume visa processing for medical professionals, while the suspension for all other types of visas continues.

While many states are easing licensing requirements for medical professionals licensed in other states, there is still much to be done at the federal and state levels to enable foreign medical professionals to  do their urgently needed work wherever they are needed in the U.S.

To learn more, see:

Forbes:  Immigration Can Save Lives During America’s COVID-19 Crisis

The Hill:  Immigrant doctors face challenges to work, even in coronavirus pandemic

L.A. Times:   Opinion: Our lives depend on immigrants to get us through the coronavirus crisis

New York Times:  Foreign Doctors Could Help Fight Coronavirus. But U.S. Blocks Many

Washington Post:   ‘Dreamers’ risk lives on pandemic’s front lines while they await a decision on their own futures

Migration Policy Institute:   Immigrant Health-Care Workers in the United States