The U.S. Senate's military and tsunami spending bill passed with an amendment to expand visas available for foreign nurses, but the hospital-backed measure faces an uncertain future. The House spending bill does not include a similar provision, although it contains a controversial provision to prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving drivers' licenses. The Senate amendment would free up 141,000 visas that went unused between 2001 and 2004 because of changing immigration policies and heightened post-9/11 security, which created delays and a backlog of visa applicants. Efforts to erase that backlog left nurses from China, India and the Philippines facing up to a three-year wait for a visa as on Jan. 1. Federal law caps the number of visas to be awarded each year and limits how many visas each country receives; typically, unused visas can't be carried over from year to year.
Half of the 141,000 visas would be set aside for skilled workers, such as nurses and physical therapists, said Carla Luggiero, senior associate director for federal relations at the American Hospital Association. It may not survive conference committee, however, where the House and Senate must reconcile the bills. A fight over the measure could scuttle all immigration-related provisions, she said. "We may be a victim of other controversial immigration amendments," Luggiero said. -- by Melanie Evans