Every March, doctors across the United States and the world eagerly await “Match Day” — the day they find out what residency, internship, or fellowship program they matched to. By that point, residency candidates have completed medical school and passed a series of rigorous qualifying exams. For those who are not American—about a quarter of all doctors in the United States are foreign-born — there’s one additional step: securing a J-1 visa, a nonimmigrant exchange visa conditioned on an individual’s return to his or her home country for at least two years at the conclusion of the program.
In the weeks following the March 17 match, dozens of Pakistani physicians had their J-1 applications denied in Islamabad and Karachi, said Shahzad Iqbal, a Pakistani-American physician in New York.
Jan Pederson has spent the last 30 years of her legal career representing foreign-born physicians coming to the United States for residency or fellowship programs. It’s an unheralded but essential line of work, because without foreign doctors, the U.S. healthcare system would simply collapse, with the pain felt most acutely in rural areas. U.S. medical schools don’t produce anywhere near enough graduates to meet the needs of the country, particularly in places where people are reluctant to move to.
Like any legal practice, Pederson’s hasn’t always been smooth. Every so often, a client’s visa application is denied. It happens. In the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, doctors from countries like Iran and Syria saw their applications get stuck in administrative processing until U.S. officials could affirmatively say the physicians posed no national security threat, she said.
But this spring, weeks after President Donald Trump issued a revised version of an executive order restricting immigration from six Muslim-majority countries, Pederson saw the same thing Iqbal did, what she called an “epidemic of Pakistani visa denials.”
Advocates say there is no way to separate the attempted Pakistani physician ban from the so-called Muslim ban and other Trump administration immigration policies.
“I think it’s a confluence of factors,” that caused the visa denials, said Pederson, the immigration attorney. “It would be hard to escape the conclusion,” that there is a correlation between the visa denials and the president’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.