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April 13, 2017

Visa delays: Headache for hospitals, but keep immigration lawyers busy

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Michael J. Murray, founder and principal of FordMurray, an immigration-focused law firm in Portland.

Maine's rural hospitals face new hurdles hiring foreign doctors after the Trump administration abruptly halted fast-track visa processing, immigration lawyers with a Portland firm that represents several hospitals told Mainebiz.

As of April 3, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspended so-called premium processing for all petitions for H-1B, a non-immigrant visa that allows employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.

USCIS said at the time that the suspension could last up to six months and would allow it to reduce overall processing times and deal with a backlog.

The agency also unveiled new measures to detect H-1B visa fraud and abuse, followed a day later by a Department of Labor declaration with a stated purpose of better protecting U.S. workers from H-1B program discrimination.

All that adds up to uncertainty for hospitals, particularly in more sparsely populated areas that count on foreign doctors to take positions that otherwise would go unfilled.

Without premium processing, visa petitions that would otherwise go through in 15 days could now be delayed for up to six months, said Michael J. Murray, founder and principal of FordMurray, an immigration-focused law firm in Portland.

Impact on Maine's rural hospitals

"We do a lot of work with the non-profit hospitals in rural Maine and this is affecting them because now the doctors that are supposed to be starting and seeing patients right away, usually in the July time-frame, may be delayed three, four, five, six months before they can start work," Murray said.

'"Some of these doctors might have to go back to their home country and wait it out there, rather than starting work when they finish up their training and residency, so that's a big unknown right now," he added.

Sara M. Fleming, an attorney with the same firm, said, "There are other avenues that we're going to try to get things to be expedited, but these are also physicians that are specifically able to get these H-1Bs because they have pledged to work in underserved areas for three years."

"These are people that are very necessary to the health care system in rural Maine," she added, "and the fact that their start dates are now going to be up in the air is very problematic."

FordMurray is currently working on H-1B petitions for nine foreign doctors out of 30 total allowed in Maine under the 30 J-1 Waiver Program for foreign physicians in underserved communities.

The H-1B restrictions come on top of the new administration's travel ban on nationals from six majority-Muslim countries that remains in legal limbo and has raised concerns with the American Medical Association.

"Many communities, including rural and low-income areas, often have problems attracting physicians to meet their health care needs," AMA President James L. Madara wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. "To address these gaps in care, IMGs [international medical graduates] often fill these openings."

He also noted that one in four practicing physicians in the U.S. is an IMG, and urged the administration "to provide details and mitigate any negative impact on our nation's health care system."

A representative of the Maine Hospital Association, which is based in Augusta, was not immediately available to comment.

It's not only the medical profession affected by the travel ban and new visa restrictions, but also multinational corporations with foreign workers, said Russell C. Ford, FordMurray's CEO and other founder and principal.

Asked what companies can do practically, he said to make sure all their documentation on foreign employees is in order. "You have to have your ducks in a row, you have to have all of your paperwork available," he said.

The boutique firm has been so busy in light of what Murray calls the "Trump bump" for immigration law, that it's recruiting a third paralegal albeit with little response so far.

Though applicants need not be immigration experts, Murray said he would prefer some experience. "We would also be willing to train someone up," he said, "an eager, bright, fresh graduate who wants to learn and do a great job."

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