Indian doctors face immigration problems

Doctors Abhijit Kanthala, form left, Asif Shah and Tushar Shah review another confusing government document. (Doug Walker, RN-T)

Many are eligible for permanent resident status but can’t even apply.

Immigration, now a hot-button issue in Washington, is also a major concern for an entire community of medical professionals in Rome for entirely different reasons. Physicians native to India almost find themselves as professionals without a country, stuck in a quagmire of immigration paperwork.

Dr. Tushar Shah, a hospitalist in Rome, said after having been in the U.S. for over a decade, he is now what amounts to an alien back at home in India.

“Our friends of 12-15 years ago have moved on with their lives, and we are here and we are establishing life here,” Tushar Shah said. “We connect to people here and if we don’t get a green card it’s a struggle.”

“I’ve spent precious years of my life here helping so many people,” Dr. Asif Shah, another local hospitalist, said. He hasn’t been home to India since 2009.

Dr. Abhijit Kanthala is also among a group of Indian physicians who came to the U.S. seeking opportunities that were not available in their homeland, and are stuck in a system that is so back-logged that none of them have been able to even apply for permanent resident status, even though they’ve been eligible to for going on five years.

All three of the young doctors now have families, their children born in the United States, but if they wanted to go back to India to visit, they are not even assured of being allowed to re-enter the United States.

“My practice is right here in the country and I can’t leave,” said Tushar Shah.

The H-IB visa serves to allow highly-skilled immigrants into the U.S.

“India has a huge pool of applicants that come in,  but there are only a limited number of green cards that are issued every year for every country,” Asif Shah said. Indians in the H-1B status who were eligible for permanent residency in 2008 are just now being allowed to apply for permanent resident status.

None of the doctors can establish their own medical practice because they don’t have permanent resident status. Kanthala is board certified in geriatrics and expressed frustration that he could not open his own practice in Rome to put that training to use.

“I can start a practice, bring jobs,” Kanthala said. But it’s at that point where his immigration status slams on the brakes.

All three of the physicians are hospitalists in Rome, which ironically, is classified as an underserved medical community for internal medicine specialists.

“Basically we are an extension of the primary care physician in the hospital,” Shah said.

Their driver’s licenses are even tied to their H-1B visas. The driver’s license expires when the visa expires, and if there is an inquiry or delay in getting the visa renewed, they are technically without a driver’s license and in a perilous position to even be able to drive to work.

Federal immigration officials put the doctor’s visas in the same category as the overwhelming number of Indian immigrants in the information technology field.

 “No multi-billion dollar companies are driving us,” Tushar Shah said. “Facebook, Google, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg are really active talking to the White House or Washington about what they need, whereas physicians are not all one company. We are all individuals separated everywhere.”

Both Tushar Shah and Asif Shah have been eligible for their green card, or permanent resident status, since 2012. Tushar Shah practiced in Blackfoot, Idaho, for three years before coming to Rome three years ago. Asif Shah practiced in Thomasville before moving to Rome. Kanthala has been in Rome about six months, but has been in the U.S. for seven years.

“One of the reasons you want to be here is because this is the country of the free,” Asif Shah said. “You want to be here because you love the country, but the system prohibits us from being a part of it.”

A report released in March 2017 by the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates there could be a shortage of as many as 43,000 internal medicine physicians by 2030.

“We’re talking about a huge need, and it’s a mutual relationship,” Tushar Shah said. “We need to be a part of the community and the community needs us.”

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