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Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 12:13 am

Is Springfield welcoming? Why doctors need to know

A few years ago I read an article indicating that health care was rivaling state government as the largest employment area in Springfield. It didn’t surprise me.

Since the founding of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in the 1970s, there has been steady growth not only of the SIU clinics but of both Memorial Medical Center and St. John’s Hospital as well as private clinics in town. Much of that growth would not be possible without the immigrants recruited to be faculty and residents at SIU – as well as others who open practices in the community.

Over the 14 years that I was chair of a clinical department at SIU, one of the toughest tasks I had was physician recruitment. Many American physicians are cautious about moving to a small market area like Springfield instead of major metropolitan areas with a greater diversity of practice opportunities.  

Thus, when recruiting I frequently talked with physicians who wanted to immigrate to the U.S. to complete their residency training or had completed American residency training and were looking at practice opportunities. All would come here with proper visas or green cards if they had not achieved citizenship.

However, whether they were here as citizens or holders of visas or green cards, there was one question they always brought up in our discussion in one way or another: Would they, as a person raised in another country and perceived as a “foreigner,” be welcomed by the people of Springfield?

They asked out of concern not only for themselves but for spouses with high-level skills in fields such as investment banking, software development or accounting. They wanted reassurance that their spouses would not be excluded from working professionally due to underlying biases and that their children would be accepted.

I always replied that while any community would have a few people who would have anti-immigrant prejudices, in general Springfield had been welcoming to the immigrant physicians I had recruited and their families.

You can then imagine my shock when I read that the Springfield City Council tabled a resolution that simply proclaimed that Springfield is a city that welcomes immigrants and refugees and values diversity. This would be an easy way to let legal immigrants know that Springfield is ready to welcome them as active contributors to our community.

The resolution did not advocate Springfield becoming a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants with the possibility of the city losing federal funding. Yet, some council members made the claim that it did.

When recruiting immigrants with high-level skills, it is important to remember that they are tech-savvy and will carefully research any potential community online. If the welcoming resolution fails to pass, the result will be that individuals who could make a positive impact on our community will see a clear indication that Springfield is not the place for them.

Now, I am sure some individuals will ask why we don’t just hire Americans. In health care, I will tell you that if Springfield just relied on hiring American-born physicians, we would not have nearly the amount of medical resources we now have and we would not be a major referral center for the region.

Others might ask “won’t we be inviting criminals?” This buys into the stereotype that legal immigrants are more likely to be criminals. Yet recent immigrants are incarcerated at 1/5 the rate of U.S.-born individuals.

This was not because they were deported or not prosecuted. Rather, the process of migration selects individuals who have either lower criminal tendency or are more concerned about the impact of criminal penalties on their status (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007).

Passing the Welcoming City resolution should be a no-brainer. Lets hope our city council has the foresight to see the advantages of passage and not focus on unsupported fears.

Dr. Soltys is a retired physician who still teaches on a volunteer basis at SIU School of Medicine.

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