Foreign Nurse Visa Freeze Exacerbates Healthcare Staffing Crisis

The State Department has effectively halted the issuance of new visas for foreign nurses for the remainder of the fiscal year due to overwhelming demand, a move that healthcare groups warn could severely worsen staffing shortages in hospitals, nursing homes, and other major health employers.

In its July Visa Bulletin, the State Department announced that nearly all the green card slots available for nurses had been filled. This means that only those who applied before December 1, 2021, will be eligible to proceed with their visa interviews, even if they already have job offers in the United States.

The department also indicated that, given the sustained high demand, it might be necessary to further delay the final action dates or even make the category “Unavailable” in August. Health organizations warn that this retrogression creates significant backlogs, resulting in extended waiting periods for nurses to obtain their visas and begin working in the U.S.

This development comes at a critical time, amid a severe nursing shortage and following the implementation of a federal staffing rule requiring nursing homes to hire over 20,000 new registered nurses within the next five years. The American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment (AAIHR) expressed grave concerns about the impact of the visa freeze.

“We’re reaching a dangerous inflection point where acute nurse staffing shortages feed burnout in a force-multiplying cycle that grows worse every day,” said Patty Jeffrey, President of AAIHR. “This latest visa freeze halts the flow of qualified international nurses when American hospitals need them most, and the only way to correct it is through congressional action.”

According to the Baker Institute, foreign nurses make up about 15 percent of the nursing workforce in the U.S. These professionals typically enter the country on an EB-3 visa. This permanent residency green card is available for all occupations requiring at least an associate’s degree but not a master’s degree. However, the immigration quota for these visas has remained unchanged since 1990, despite significant economic and population growth. The State Department caps EB-3 visas at 28.6 percent of all employment-based visas, roughly 40,000 per fiscal year.

For an immigrant visa to be granted, it must be available both at the time of filing and when the application decision is made. The monthly Visa Bulletin outlines cut-off dates, informing applicants of their eligibility for permanent resident status. When demand exceeds supply in a visa category, the eligibility date moves backward, known as retrogression.

With almost all immigrant nurses who filed by December 2021 already processed, the current retrogression effectively shuts down the international talent pipeline, according to AAIHR. Health groups are now advocating for Congress to pass the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at recapturing unused immigrant visas for nurses and physicians. However, the path forward for this legislation remains uncertain amid complex immigration politics.

The healthcare sector continues to grapple with the implications of this visa freeze, underscoring the urgent need for legislative action to address the staffing crisis and ensure a steady flow of qualified international nurses to meet the growing demands of the U.S. healthcare system.

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