On March 24, 2014, the USCIS Ombudsman reported that the agency has been improperly denying employment authorization to the dependents of J-1 doctors who are participating in the Conrad 30 program. Normally, foreign physicians who pursue medical training in the United States in J-1 status must leave the country and return home for at least two years when they finish their residency programs. The Conrad 30 program waives this two-year foreign residence requirement and allows those J-1 physicians selected for the program to change their status to H-1B (exempt from the cap) and apply for a green card if they spend at least three years practicing in an underserved area.
Prior to 2011, the USCIS routinely allowed dependents of J-1 physicians in the Conrad 30 program to change their status from J-2 to another work authorized status if they independently qualified. Beginning in September 2013, however, the USCIS began denying requests from J-2 dependents to change their status to anything other than H-4. According to the Ombudsman's report, the USCIS's change in policy is inconsistent with the Conrad 30 waiver program in several respects. First, it ignores the fact that the USCIS approval for J-1 physicians selected for the Conrad 30 program applies to both the J-1 physician and all family members. Second, the USCIS's action is inconsistent with guidance by the U.S. Department of State ("DOS") on the same issue, which includes all family members as part of the Conrad 30 waiver approval. Finally, the USCIS's short-sighted action ignores the serious policy implications that may result. The Conrad 30 program is designed to attract J-1 physicians to practice in medically underserved areas. These physicians usually are compensated far less due to the lack of financial resources in these patient populations. In this context, rules that restrict the careers of spouses may be a significant factor in the J-1 physician's decision to relocate. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is placing increased reliance on these types of programs to expand the delivery of medical services across the country. In this context, this USCIS rule creates the type of additional obstacle for J-1 physicians that may further limit the availability of care in already underserved areas.