Dentists on foreign work visas are risking their health to maintain their legal status and treat patients during the pandemic

Dentists on foreign work visas are risking their health to maintain their legal status and treat patients during the pandemic
Azeez Swarup, a dentist in Nashua, New Hampshire, is dependent on his employment to stay in the United States.Scott Elliott for Business Insider Today
  • Immigrants working in the US healthcare industry on work visas are risking their health to maintain their legal status during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Over half a million people live in the US on H-1B visas, which means they must be sponsored by an employer in order to stay in the country.
  • When nonessential businesses shut down during the pandemic, hundreds of dentists on H-1B visas lost their jobs and risked losing their legal status.
  • Many of these dentists serve in rural, low-income communities and treat patients who would otherwise struggle to find care.
  • As offices have reopened, some H-1B dentists say they're more worried about their future in America than about getting COVID-19.

Dentists like Azeez Swarup risk getting COVID-19 every day on the job.

But as an immigrant on a work visa, his main concern isn't the virus.

"The first thing that comes into my mind if I am or if I get sick is, what is going to happen to my visa?" Swarup, an Indian national working in Nashua, New Hampshire, told Business Insider Today. "Will I be able to stay in this country or not?"

Swarup is one of over half a million people living in the US on what's called an H-1B visa, and his right to stay here depends on his ability to stay employed, even through a pandemic.

After lockdowns in the spring forced nonessential offices to close, hundreds of dentists on H-1B visas found their legal status in limbo. As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the US, fears of losing that status persist.


"If you don't have a job, you just have 60 days either to get a new job or to just leave the country," Swarup said.

H-1B visas are already hard to come by when the economy is normal. Not only do applicants need to have a higher education degree, work in a specialty occupation, and receive sponsorship from an employer, they also have to go through a lottery system because Congress limits the number of visas available each year.

Once visa recipients are inside the country, getting a green card for permanent residency is equally difficult because they also have per-country quotas. The system has created an especially severe backlog for Indian nationals, who account for a majority of employment-based petitions.

For Swarup, the idea of having to abandon the whole process now — and go back to a country he left years ago — is scary.

"When somebody lives for such a long time in one place, thinking that they will be belonging to this place, they don't have much ties somewhere else," he said.


Dentists on foreign work visas are risking their health to maintain their legal status and treat patients during the pandemic
The coronavirus has added another risk for Jaspreet Kaur Gill, a dentist in Wylie, Texas.Royal Day for Business Insider Today

Dentists on work visas are often vital to people in rural and low-income communities.

Over 46 million Americans currently lack basic access to dental care, and by the year 2025, every state is expected to have a dentist shortage.

Immigrants on work visas say they're the ones helping to fill that gap, treating low-income populations and accepting government insurance plans that other providers won't. Many dentists on H-1B visas actually call smaller, rural parts of America home because those are the areas where they're able to find work.

"If I want to live in this country, I need a job. And where do I have the job? In those remote areas where nobody else wants to come in," Swarup said.

"People used to come to me driving two hours, two and a half hours, just to get taken care of a filling or a cavity which was bothering them."


When Swarup's office in Nashua reopened after lockdown, calls poured in from patients who had never been there before.

"If he wasn't willing to see me at that time, I don't even know. I don't even want to think about what would have come of that," one patient, Kelsey O'Driscoll of Dunstable, Massachusetts, said. "I imagine I could have been in my basement with a wrench and a bottle of whiskey trying to tear out my teeth."

Another dentist, Jaspreet Kaur Gill, recently found a job in the town of Wylie, Texas after getting laid off by a previous employer in March.

On top of worrying about her job security and her legal status, she is now contending with the coronavirus, which has altered the way she works.

"We have to wear an N95 mask every day, covered by a face shield, and have a head cover, and then a gown, which, it has to be fluid-resistant, not just normal gowns," she told Business Insider Today. "We have to get used to it, but if there's a high volume of patients, it's taking a lot of time and practices are spending much more money buying the PPE and keeping everybody safe."


One of Gill's patients, Thomas Boyce of Farmersville, Texas, said Gill even offered him a discount when he had to come in for a recent procedure.

"She didn't have to do that. This is her livelihood," Boyce said. "She's under no obligation to do that. She did that willingly on her own."

For dentists on H-1B visas, the pandemic is threatening not only their health, but their American dream.

"There's just one thing I'm looking [for] is stability," Swarup said. "There's just one thing which I am scared is that not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow to me. Will I be able to live in this country for a longer time?"