USDA Ends J-1 Waiver Sponsorship
There has been a steadily increasing demand in many rural areas for foreign trained doctors. Each year, 400 foreign doctors enter the U.S. under the J-1 Visa Program. The J-1 Visa Program allows professionals, including foreign doctors to learn and train in the U.S. Typically, J-1 visa holders are required to return to their home country for at least two years before becoming eligible to apply for an immigrant visa, permanent residence or another nonimmigrant visa in the U.S. In some cases, a waiver is available that permits the J-1 holder to disregard the two-year rule and work immediately in the U.S. while applying for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa. Due to the escalating number of medically underprivileged areas in the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been sponsoring foreign doctors for J-1 waivers if they are willing to practice in these areas.
Unexpectedly, at the end of February, 2002, the USDA announced that they were terminating J-1 waiver sponsorship and that any pending waiver requests, about 86 applications, would not be processed. The sudden termination immediately sparked criticism among supporters and participants of the waiver program since the agency did not provide any warning. There has been a fear that the shortage of doctors in rural areas will sharply increase now that the USDA ended their role in the program.
The USDA explained that the decision was based on investigations of the waiver program held after September 11th. The results of that investigation revealed that nearly 160 physicians gave false information to work at nonexistent employers, and several posed “security risks.” Consequently, the agency decided to forego involvement in the program, which forced J-1 holders to leave the country and re-apply under the two-year residency rule.
The agency surprised everyone again in mid-April, 2002 by announcing that they would continue to process all of the J-1 waiver applications that were pending when the cancellation was announced. This may have been due to the pressure of various groups, including members of Congress, and mainly, the American Hospital Association (AHA). The Justice Department and the State Department would assist by completing background checks for the remaining applications before the USDA decides to sponsor each applicant.
The USDA has discontinued its role in a program that has been such a huge success for over eight years. The supporters of this program are outraged since there is a growing lack of medical expertise in many rural areas. The American Hospital Association estimates that more than 20 million Americans live in areas that have insufficient medical service. For that reason, President Bush has formed a task force to review the J-1 Visa Program. In the meantime, the recent decision to sponsor the pending applicants provides some hope that the USDA may reconsider and re-join the waiver program.