Bilingual Health Workers Sought

Oscar Avila, Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2006

Cook County should sponsor foreign-born nurses, pharmacists and radiologists for legal work visas to help fill a shortage of Spanish-speaking health professionals, a county commissioner said Monday.

Commissioner Roberto Maldonado’s proposal is unconventional enough, but he wants to take it even further: He wants the county to hire Illinois college graduates in the health field even if they don’t have legal immigration status.

The idea is clearly illegal, immigration experts agree, but Maldonado said he will introduce the plan Wednesday to highlight the shortage of bilingual health providers at county facilities.

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Experts estimated that less than 5 percent of the state’s nurses are bilingual; county officials estimate that about one-third of their patients speak primarily Spanish.

Under the modest pilot program, the county would work with Latin American consulates in Chicago to fill about 20 professional positions.

Both components of the proposal are likely to generate criticism—from opponents of illegal immigration and from labor unions that contend the legal work visas would displace U.S.-born workers.

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Cook County would sign a pact to provide the consulates of at least 10 Latin American nations, including Mexico, Ecuador and Chile, an ongoing list of vacancies at county hospitals and clinics. County officials and the consulates would work together to select applicants.

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Maldonado’s more radical idea is to hire undocumented immigrants with health training. Maldonado said he would try to link them with legal visas but would hire them anyway if they graduated from public state universities. Because they are living here illegally, those graduates now have no job prospects after attending college under an Illinois law that grants in-state tuition to undocumented high school graduates.

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Mexican officials offered qualified support for Maldonado’s plan to hire illegal immigrants.

“We support any kind of measure that can benefit the immigrant community,” Romero said.

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