State Department freezes new visas for foreign nurses

June 17, 2024

The State Department has essentially frozen foreign nurse visas for the rest of the fiscal year amid high demand, and health groups are warning it threatens to further a staffing strain on hospitals, nursing homes and other major health employers. 

The agency in its July Visa Bulletin announced that nearly all the available green card slots for which nurses are eligible had been filled. Only people who applied prior to Dec. 1, 2021, would be eligible to continue with visa interviews, even if an applicant already had a job offer in the U.S. 

Given continued high demand, the State Department said it will likely be necessary to further push back the final action date or make the category “Unavailable” in August. 

Health groups said the retrogression creates significant backlogs, which means longer waiting periods for nurses to obtain their visas and start working in the U.S.  

It comes amid a major nursing shortage, and as federal health care regulators finalized a staffing rule requiring nursing homes to hire upwards of 20,000 new registered nurses over five years. 

“We’re reaching a dangerous inflection point where acute nurse staffing shortages feed burnout in a force-multiplying cycle that grows worse every day,” American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment (AAIHR) President Patty Jeffrey said in a statement.

“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,” Jeffrey said. 

Foreign nurses comprise about 15 percent of the nursing workforce. They are eligible to enter the country with an EB-3 visa, a permanent residency green card that includes all occupations that require at least an associate’s degree but not a master’s degree.

But the immigration quota hasn’t changed since 1990, despite economic and population growth. The State Department limits the total number of EB-3 visas to just 28.6 percent of all employment-based visas, about 40,000 each fiscal year. 

According to the State Department, an immigrant visa must be available to the applicant both at the time of filing and at the time a decision is made on the application.  

The monthly Visa Bulletin lists the cut-off dates, and lets applicants know when they are eligible to be granted permanent resident status. Applicants who have a priority date — the date the green card petition is first officially filed — earlier than the cut-off date are eligible to apply for permanent residence.  

When more people apply for a visa in a particular category or country than there are visas available, the eligibility date retrogresses, or moves backward. 

Since virtually all immigrant nurses who filed on or before December 2021 will have already moved through the processing queue, this retrogression amounts to closing the entire international talent pipeline, AAIHR said.

Health groups are pushing for Congress to pass legislation with broad bipartisan support that would recapture unused immigrant visas and give them to nurses and physicians. But immigration politics are making passing any kind of fix difficult, so the path forward on the bill, called the Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act, isn’t clear.