U.S. Policy Asks Foreign Doctor to Serve Rural America but Won’t Let Her Husband Work

Johanne Personna-Policard loves her job as a neurologist. It’s rewarding, even during the one week a month that she’s on call, when she fields middle-of-the-night phone calls that send her racing out the door. She finds some patients on the brink of death, and her quick care—an injection of clot buster, for example—is what saves them.

And yet due to the particulars of America’s immigration reform system, her husband, also a highly trained scientist, is unable to work.

Personna-Policard was born and raised in Haiti, where she studied medicine. She trained in neurology in France and, after marrying, moved to the United States, where she completed a medical residency program at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. Both she and her husband—a Haitian who studied environmental science in the U.S.—had big career ambitions. He wanted to teach and research creative solutions to environmental contamination and climate change, she wanted to practice medicine in a bustling, diverse city. But their visa put the brakes on her husband’s work.

Like most foreign medical residents, Personna-Policard was in the United States on a temporary visa that requires the doctors to return to their home countries for at least two years. Because of the upheaval in Haiti, Personna-Policard decided to take advantage of a program that lets doctors stay if they agree to work in a medically underserved area in America for three years. And so the couple came to Lynchburg. But the terms of the visa prohibit her husband from working unless he can find a local company to hire him. Unfortunately, in such a small town, there are few job opportunities for environmental scientists.

American institutions invested time and money in his education, but now that he can’t work, this country won’t reap the benefits.

To Personna-Policard, this is a bad deal for both her family and the United States. Her husband is a Fulbright scholar with a PhD from Rutgers University who did research for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. American institutions invested time and money in his education, but now that he can’t work, this country won’t reap the benefits, she says. “He could be teaching at the university or working in a research lab on environmental contamination and climate change.”

Personna-Policard’s husband spends his time caring for their two children, which he loves, but his career prospects diminish every year he’s out of the workforce, she says. In addition, he’s a talented scientist with a lot to offer, and his absence is a loss to everyone.

Personna-Policard would like to see immigration policy change to allow highly qualified workers like her husband to work. The couple was drawn to the United States believing their talents would best flourish here. But as time passes, Personna-Policard sees how immigration policy actually impedes their careers. While she expected they would be embraced, celebrated and sought after as their skills improved, instead, she says, “the more you rise to the top [the less] easy [it gets].” The United States may long for the best, but immigration policy prevents it from reaping the rewards of the very professionals it trains, she says; it is “contradictory to the country’s core values.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…