Immigrants Are Saving Our Lives And Risking Their Own During The Pandemic

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to besiege our country, we depend ever more on the brave men and women who are tasked with treating the disease.

Every day, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals risk their lives to save others, on top of the additional and uniquely-American challenges they face. In the U.S., we have:

  • The largest COVID-19 case load of any country.
  • A large population size.
  • People spread across a land mass that is the fourth largest in the world.
  • A heterogeneous population that may influence which vaccines or treatments are most effective.

Despite all of these obstacles, the U.S. has a lower death rate compared to many other countries. For that, we thank all of the brave healthcare professionals who care for Americans battling COVID-19.

Unfortunately, even as they struggle to combat the virus, many of these healthcare professionals face an equally-sinister fear—that the U.S. Government will deport them back to their home countries for lack of legal status in the U.S. About a third of U.S. doctors and a fifth of U.S. nurses are born outside of the United States.

Medical professionals who are immigrants are more likely to work in poorer and more-rural areas than their American-born counterparts. Even without the guaranteed rights that citizenship brings, these immigrants choose to help their adopted country in her time of need.

Immigrant healthcare professionals face unique challenges. Many immigrant visas restrict where a foreign national can work. This prevents them from temporarily working in the areas of greatest need. If immigrant doctors or nurses get sick, they are not eligible for Medicaid or Social Security Benefits. And if an immigrant healthcare worker is severely ill, jeopardizing their employment-based visa status, their families would be unable to stay or work in the U.S. legally.

Nurses

Foreign nurses compose a large group of foreign-born nurses in the U.S. who provide skilled care to COVID-19 patients. Filipino nurses account for 4% of the U.S. nurse population at large, yet as many as 30% of the nurse deaths from COVID-19 have been among Filipino nurses. While the increased death rate has been attributed to such factors as inadequate personal protections and testing for nurses, the fact of the matter is that immigrants—especially blue and pink-collar immigrants—have access to fewer resources and serve areas with fewer protections.

The Atlantic’s profile of a Filipino nurse named Daisy Doronila, drives this point home. Like many of her Filipino counterparts, Doronila immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. She was stationed at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, which served the poorest residents of Los Angeles. Later in her career, she served at a juvenile detention facility and then, a correctional center in New Jersey. For three decades, Doronila always sought to treat the less fortunate and make America a safer place.

In mid-March, Doronila developed a cough and began feeling unwell. Doctors told her at various times that she probably had a cold and didn’t qualify for COVID-19 testing. On April 5, less than three weeks later, Doronila died.

Although testing has improved since March, Doronila’s story still represents one of the challenges immigrant nurses face in America. Healthcare systems in developed countries rely heavily on immigrant workers from poorer nations to thrive. But even as they save lives, immigrants have access to fewer resources and are more at risk than their citizen counterparts.

Doctors

Doctors are no less exposed than nurses. Take the example of Dr. Karanjit Sandhu, as profiled in Mother Jones. Sandhu is a hospitalist from India who works at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Sandhu is an H-1B holder, meaning that his immigration status—and his wife’s—are tied to his employment. Sandhu contracted COVID-19 in March. As he spent two weeks in bed with “fever, aches, and extreme fatigue,” his foremost concern was not his health, but rather, what would happen with his immigration status if he were forced to leave his job.

Not only Sandhu’s immigration status was affected. His wife Dr. Bhavna Sharma is a pulmonologist at the same hospital; but her ability to remain in the U.S. and work depended upon her husband’s visa status. Sharma characterized her husband’s illness as the most stressful two weeks of her life, since in addition to losing her lifelong companion, she could have lost her standing to remain in America.

Because Sharma was on an H-4 visa, she could not remain in the U.S. independently of her husband. Spouses of H-1B visa holders, such as Sharma, only have legal status in the U.S. because of their spouse’s status.

Even as the virus threatens their lives and their immigration status, Sandhu, Sharma, and hundreds of thousands of other immigrant doctors strive to make our lives better each day.

Leaders

While we can appreciate the work nurses and doctors do every day to keep us healthy, they are fighting a losing battle. We have reached over 200,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and experts believe the number will climb higher still. We need a vaccine, and again, it is immigrants who lead the charge.

Moderna and Pfizer are two of the most reputable and cutting edge biotechnology companies in existence today. Both are on the cusp of seeking approval for a COVID-19 vaccine that could save billions of lives around the world.

Both are also founded and chaired by immigrants.

Moderna is the upstart darling of biotech world, founded in 2010 and now responsible for the most effective COVID-19 vaccine in FDA trials. While it was Harvard researchers who formed the backbone of the team, they were financed and chaired by Noubar Afeyan, a two-time immigrant with Armenian roots who emigrated from Lebanon by way of Canada.

The rest of Moderna’s team is just as globally sourced, including CEO Stéphane Bancel from France, Chief Medical Officer Tal Zaks from Israel, Chief Digital and Operational Excellence Officer Marcello Damiani from France, and Chief Technical Operations and Quality Officer Juan Andres from Spain. Together, their dynamism and business acumen have driven Moderna to become one of the most innovative biotech companies.

Like Moderna, Pfizer was founded by two German immigrants and is now chaired by immigrant.

Unlike Moderna however, Pfizer is a giant of the pharmaceutical world, creating life-saving products for over a century-and-a-half and is among one of the largest 100 companies in the world. Pfizer was founded by Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart in 1849.

Today, it is chaired by Albert Bourla, a Greek immigrant who came to the U.S. when he was 35 years old. While Moderna’s vaccine may be closer to approval, much of the world is looking towards Pfizer’s unparalleled capacity for production and distribution. Indeed, the company expects to produce 50 million doses by the end of 2020 and 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

Americans are fortunate that the likes of Afeyan and Bourla chose to make the long journey west. And, most importantly, they are working to save our lives.

The Common Thread

What do immigrant doctors, nurses, and business leaders have in common? They share an appreciation for the great American experiment.

America is uniquely gifted in its capacity for immigration and its appeal to immigrants. Millions of first-generation Americans have contributed to America’s growth and prosperity over the past three centuries. And as we face the greatest crisis of our lifetime, millions of immigrants continue to risk their lives to battle COVID-19, whether it’s in the hospital as doctors and nurses or in the lab as scientists and visionaries.

As they risk their lives without a guarantee of residency or citizenship, let’s all take a second to try and understand the sacrifices they have made and thank them for their service.

Sonseere H. Goldenberg gratefully acknowledges Han Li’s research and writing assistance in drafting this article. Han is a J.D. Candidate, expected May 2021, at the University of Minnesota Law School.