Under current U.S. immigration laws, non-immigrant visa options for nurses are limited, mainly because most employers only require a two year degree rather than four-year bachelor''s degree.
During the last nursing shortage, the U.S. Congress carved out a specific non-immigrant visa category, designated H-1A, for registered nurses. This visa type did not become a permanent part of the immigration laws, and was allowed to expire on September 1, 1995, when Congress believed the shortage had subsided. A similar provision, which would provide a new visa category for general registered nurses, is currently under consideration, and will be discussed separately below.
The H-1B "Specialty Occupation" visa is available to individuals who can demonstrate qualification in a "specialty occupation" and who are sponsored by a U.S. employer to work temporarily in the U.S. in a "specialty occupation". The Immigration & Nationality Act defines a specialty occupation as "an occupation that requires--(A) theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge, and (B) attainment of a bachelor's or higher degree in the specific specialty (or its equivalent) as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States." Persons who typically will be eligible for this visa include members of the professions such as engineers, teachers, lawyers, as well as scientists and other highly qualified persons.
Through policy memos and case decisions, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) has determined that nursing, as a profession, is not a per se a specialty occupation, since a bachelor's degree is not generally required to become a registered nurse. This determination is based on the findings of the Department of Labor as to the educational preparation required for most nurses published in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (1995) and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1991). Some have criticized the INS because many employers have dropped the requirement for a bachelors degree precisely because of the severe shortage of nurses and not because the ideal nurse does not need such a degree. They argue that if the point of the H-1B visa is to help employers find qualified workers where there may be a shortage, then the INS policy totally thwarts the intention of Congress.
The INS does acknowledge, however, that there are areas of nursing where the specific duties are so specialized and complex that the knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with the attainment of a baccalaureate or higher degree. Such areas may include supervisory or management positions, and specialties such as surgical nursing, pediatric nursing, nurse-anesthetist and nurse-practitioners. H-1B petitions can be filed in these areas, but even these cases are scrutinized extremely closely.
The INS will also give consideration to applications from employers that can demonstrate that a bachelor's degree is the employer's minimum requirement for all candidates for a specific position and/or department, especially where the requirement is common in the industry. But, as noted above, the severe shortage of nurses makes this an unlikely option for many employers. Because of these reasons, H-1B visas are typically not a good option for those looking to hire nurses.
TN-1 visas are available under the North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA") to Canadian and Mexican citizens for a limited group of specialty occupations. Although not recognized as a specialty occupation for H-1B purposes, registered nurses were specifically included as a listed profession for which TN visas could be used.
Under NAFTA, the applicant must possess the required credentials to be considered a professional under the TN category. In contrast to the H-1B category, registered nurses require only a state or provincial license to practice in order to establish the necessary credentials. A license to practice in any state or province should technically establish the necessary qualifications. However, where a license to practice as a registered nurse is required in the state of intended employment, an applicant must also have such a license before TN status will be granted. A temporary or interim license should be sufficient to permit entry under the TN category.
Once admitted, a worker is granted an initial stay of one year. Thereafter, a TN professional may seek extensions of stay in one-year increments. There is currently no limit on the number of extensions that may be granted.
Late in 1999, Congress passed the Nursing Relief for Disadvantaged Areas Act, which calls for the creation of a new H-1C visa for nurses going to work for up to three years in health professional shortage areas. Up to 500 nurses per year can get the visa, but each state is limited to 25 H-1C nurses a year. Under the law, facilities interested in sponsoring nurses for H-1C visas must submit documentation containing a number of attestations regarding the employment of H-1C nurses.
As with most immigration laws, the statute itself provided very little guidance on how the law would be applied, leaving it to the INS (and in most employment visa cases the Department of Labor as well) to develop regulations. The regulations for the H-1C program were released by the Department of Labor last summer, and became effective in September 2000. While the regulation is currently effective, because it was released as an interim regulation, parts of it could change after the Department of Labor reviews the public comments that it received in response. The INS released its regulations in June 2001.
One of the most surprising elements of the Labor Department''s regulations is a DOL finding that based on the restrictive definition of ""facility"" Congress put in the statute, only fourteen hospitals in the country could be initially determined to qualify to apply for H-1C visas.
The DOL recognizes that other facilities might qualify, but have simply not been identified at this time.
The attestation process is being administered by the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor. Enforcement of the attestations is being overseen by the Employment Standards Administration''s Wages and Hours Division.
The 1999 law is very similar to a 1989 law that created the H-1A visa for nurses. That visa category expired several years ago after unsuccessful efforts to extend its life. The key differences between the two programs are that a much smaller number of H-1C visas have been allocated and that the facility where the nurse will work must be in a health professional shortage area. There are also new requirements which limit a facility''s dependence on H-1C nurses (something that is hard to imagine given that only 500 H-1C nurses permitted into the country each year, with no more than 25 allowed to work in a single state).
The Department of Labor has created a new attestation form called the ETA 9081. On the form, the facility must attest to the following:
- • That it is a qualifying facility. If the ETA 9081 is the first one being filed by a facility, then the form must be accompanied by copies of the pages from the paperwork filed with the Department of Health and Human Services showing the number of acute care beds and the percentages of Medicaid and Medicare reimbursed acute care inpatient days. A copy of this paperwork must also be kept in a public access file.
• Operating a training program for registered nurses at the facility or financing or providing participation in a training program elsewhere.
• Providing career development programs and other methods of facilitating health care workers to become RNs.
• Paying registered nurses wages at a rate at least 5% higher than the prevailing wage for the area.
• Providing reasonable opportunities for meaningful salary advancement by registered nurses.
• Any other steps that would be considered significant efforts to recruit and retain nurses.
• That the employment of H-1C nurses will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of similarly employed nurses.
• That the facility will pay the H-1C nurse the facility wage rate.
• That the facility has taken and is taking timely and significant steps to recruit and retain nurses in order to reduce dependence on immigrant nurses. At least two such steps must be taken unless it can show that the second step is not reasonable. Documentation of these steps needs to be included in the facility''s public access file for H-1C nurse petitions. Steps which may be taken can include: • That there is not a strike or lockout at the facility, that the employment of H-1C nurses is not intended or designed to influence an election for a union representative at the facility and that the facility did not lay off and will not lay off an RN within the 90 day period and 90 day period after the date of filing an H-1C petition.
• That the employer will notify other workers and give a copy of the attestation to every nurse employed at the facility within 30 days of filing. E-mail attachments are acceptable.
• That no more than 33% of the nurses employed by the facility will be H-1C non-immigrants.
• That the facility will not authorize H-1C non-immigrants to work at a worksite not under its control and will not transfer an H-1C nurse from one worksite to another.
The paperwork must also be accompanied by a $250 filing fee. After the Attestation is approved by the Labor Department and used in support of an H-1C petition approved by the INS, the employer is required to send a copy of the H-1C petition and INS approval to the Labor Department. Also, as noted above, the employer must create a public access file that includes the Attestation and its supporting documentation. The file must be produced for any interested party within 72 hours upon written or oral request.
Under the INS regulations, there are three primary eligibility requirements for foreign nurses who wish to work in the US on an H-1C visa:
• They must have an unrestricted license to work as a professional nurse in the country where they received their nursing training, or have received that training in the US;
• They must pass an examination approved by the Department of Health and Human Services or have a license to work as a professional nurse in the state where they will work; and
• They must be eligible to work as a registered nurse under both the laws of the state where they will work and the regulations of the facility where they will work.
Currently, the examination is that offered by the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS). CGFNS certifies that the foreign nurse''s training and license are equivalent to a similarly situated US nurse, that all their documents are authentic, that the foreign nurse has an unrestricted license, that the foreign nurse is sufficiently proficient in written and spoken English, and that the foreign nurse has in fact passed a state licensing exam. Questions about the exam may be directed to CGFNS through its website at http://www.cgfns.org/