"I have a cousin in Ireland who is a qualified nurse, the equivalent of our registered nurses. She is working part-time there and is completely fed up of the situation. She would like to come to the U.S., and I think I remember reading that nurses can get visas pretty easily here. Is this true, and how would she go about getting one of these visas?”

It used to be true that nurses had an easier path to legal status here – actually, easier isn’t the correct word to use, but rather, there used to be a dedicated visa category, the H-1C, devoted solely for nurses.

The H-1C category was created in 1999 as part of an act called the Nursing Relief for Disadvantaged Areas Act. The category was designed specifically to address the shortage of nurses in designated disadvantaged areas throughout the U.S., including inner cities and some rural locations.

The H-1C program allocated only 500 visas on an annual basis, though, and the visa was good for one three-year term. The H-1C program lapsed at the end of 2009, but there are moves afoot in Congress to once again have it reinstated.

Last summer, the House of Representatives voted in favor of bill HR 1933, which would implement the H-1C program for another three years, by a huge margin of 407-17. The bill was introduced by Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
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That bill is currently languishing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and no action is scheduled. But given that this is a presidential election year anything can happen.

“A number of American hospitals have great difficulty attracting nurses. These include hospitals that serve mostly poor patients in inner-city neighborhoods and some hospitals in rural areas,” said Smith when the bill passed the House.

A vocal opponent of what he describes as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, Smith took pains to point out that HR 1933 would not displace qualified American nurses. At only 500 visas per year it’s hard to see how that would happen in the first place, especially as the H-1C applicant must agree to work in a disadvantaged/rural area.

“The H-1C program also contains protections for American nurses. For instance, a hospital has to agree to take timely and significant steps to recruit American nurses,” a statement from the House Judiciary Committee says.

In the meantime, what’s your cousin to do? She’ll have to first obtain a job offer from a U.S. employer who would have to agree to act as an H-1B visa sponsor. The H-1B professional visa is what many temporary, skilled workers use to come to the U.S., and there is an annual cap of 65,000.

In order to be eligible for a visa, your cousin would have to pass an exam administered by CGFNS, an organization which evaluates credentials obtained abroad by those hoping to work in the U.S., including nurses. She would also have to obtain a VisaScreen certificate, which ensures that her Irish nursing credentials are up to U.S. standards.

As you can see it’s an involved process, but one that certainly is not impossible. If your cousin wishes to proceed she should visit the U.S. and scope out possible job opportunities. Many hospitals hire foreign nurses and would be aware of how to proceed; an immigration lawyer would be an absolute necessity.