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Foreign-Born Doctors Start Their Residencies At U.S. Hospitals Amid The Pandemic


Thousands of foreign-born doctors begin their residencies at hospitals across the U.S. today. They will confront two historic challenges - the coronavirus pandemic and some of the most restrictive immigration policies this nation has seen in decades. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Basim Ali graduated at the top of his medical school class in Pakistan. The first time we spoke, he was still in Karachi. He had just been accepted into a residency program at a renowned teaching hospital in Texas, where he'll be on the front lines of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the U.S.

BASIM ALI: There's obviously some degree of anxiety about what that's going to be like, but there's also this understanding that this is what we signed up for.

ROSE: Ali is one of more than 4,000 foreign-born medical doctors who will officially start their residencies at U.S. hospitals today amid a new surge of coronavirus cases. At the same time, the White House is blaming foreigners for the virus and closing the borders to all kinds of immigrants. Basim Ali knows all that.

ALI: Yes, of course, it might be disheartening for some to hear statements like that - that they're not welcome. But right now, as far as I'm concerned, they do not affect me.

ROSE: For now, new Trump administration restrictions on immigration do not affect Ali and other incoming residents. The White House has suspended green cards and visas for many foreign guest workers, but the administration exempted health care workers as long as they're needed for the coronavirus response. The Trump administration says it's trying to put American workers first. Here's Ken Cuccinelli, a top immigration official at the Department of Homeland Security.


KEN CUCCINELLI: At a time of double-digit unemployment, the president is seeking to ensure that Americans aren't facing what domestically feels like unfair competition.

ROSE: But when it comes to health care, the U.S. depends on foreign labor. Almost 30% of doctors are immigrants. It's been a symbiotic relationship. Doctors come here to get top-notch training, and U.S. hospitals get access to the brightest minds in the world. Dr. William Pinsky is the head of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which helps vet foreign doctors for residencies in the U.S.

WILLIAM PINSKY: The teaching programs want to have the best people because I know that the public deserves having the best people caring for them.

ROSE: Pinsky's group also helps foreign doctors navigate the U.S. immigration system, which has been even harder than usual this year because the coronavirus disrupted most visa processing at U.S. consulates and embassies overseas and shuttered immigration offices inside the U.S. as well.

CHANDANA KAMIREDDY: The uncertainty has been really stressful the last couple of months.

ROSE: Chandana Kamireddy is a doctor from India. She was living in Ohio with her husband and their 20-month-old child when the pandemic hit.

KAMIREDDY: I was actually on the front lines taking care of COVID patients as an attending physician at my hospital.

ROSE: Kamireddy was supposed to move to Tennessee to start a fellowship in oncology this month. In order to change jobs, Kamireddy needed to get a different visa. But U.S. immigration offices were closed to the public, and time was running out. Then she heard from other foreign doctors on Facebook that the U.S. Consulate in Mexico was open for visa interviews, so she got on a plane.

KAMIREDDY: Yeah, I'm not here as a tourist.

ROSE: Kamireddy was in a hotel room in Mexico City when we talked.

KAMIREDDY: I just want to, like, isolate myself but just in the room. So I'm just going to go to the appointment and then travel back to United States the next day.

ROSE: Kamireddy did get her visa. A few days later, the White House announced new limits on foreign workers and immigrants. I asked Kamireddy and Basim Ali what it's like to be treating American patients at a time when the Trump administration is doubling down on its immigration crackdown. From his new home in Texas, Ali told me he doesn't believe the president speaks for all Americans.

ALI: I do still have a lot of hope because the view of one person does not color the view of the people that I get to meet and interact with every day, like the patients and my co-workers.

ROSE: Ali says his hospital is glad to have him, and he's eager to get to work.

Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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