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Red State Doctors: Why Immigration From Muslim Majority Countries Matters for Rural America

On Monday, the Supreme Court let certain parts of the travel ban on Muslim immigrants stay in effect until it officially hears the case in October. The president hailed this as a victory for national security; yet, the 4th Circuit and the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit both previously  ruled his ban unconstitutional. Thanks to this new semi-success for the Trump administration’s “temporary” travel ban, the potential impact on healthcare in rural America could be devastating.

The popular perception of Muslims in America is one of uneducated immigrants, unable to assimilate and prone to radicalization. Contrary to this trope, immigrants from Muslim majority countries are often among the most educated from their homelands. In fact, they make up a large proportion of doctors who go to rural areas in the Rust Belt or the South where there is a dire shortage of doctors.

Recent immigrants to the US have been viewed with a great deal of skepticism––or even outright hatred––since before the country began. The recipients of this xenophobic treatment have included African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Catholics, Central and East Europeans, Asians, Latinos, and now Muslims.  This newest strain is also extended to people who may not even be Muslim, but may be perceived to be from that part of the world. Many of these families could be Christian, Jewish, Yezidi, or Baha’i, but it makes no difference to those who see them as unwelcome because of their nationality.  These various groups often work in rural areas as primary care physicians, ironically working among many of the same people who objected to their entrance into America in the first place.

Various media outlets have pointed out that nearly 20 percent of all American healthcare workers are foreign born. Coincidentally, many of these doctors come from Muslim majority countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. The climate of fear being created by Trump’s tirades against immigration could easily discourage doctors from Muslim majority countries––even those that aren’t on the ban––to choose the UK, Australia, or other Western nations. These doctors are vital in many instances, because they are much more eager than other physicians to move in parts of America where there is the greatest need. The Immigrant Doctors Project estimates that 94 percent of Americans live in a community with at least one doctor from the affected countries on the proposed travel ban.

Rural areas, like my home state of West Virginia, are perfect examples of this. Over 210,000 patients are served by immigrant doctors from the Middle East every year, and West Virginia is the rule, not the exception. The health problems of the Mountain State are multilayered, and are very emblematic of Appalachia, the South, and parts of the Rust Belt. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the statistics show West Virginia and the rest of the South at or near the bottom of every health-related index. The OECD’s statistics paint a very grim picture; yet, West Virginia and states like it, are among the most fervent supporters of President’s immigration policies. One must ponder if the residents of West Virginia and similar states realize the cascading effect the travel ban could have on their already-dire health care situation.

Many of the doctors that come from Iran and Syria will stay in the rural areas which they migrate to for work. With such an in-demand profession they could easily move to areas where they could live a more affluent lifestyle; yet, they usually stay dedicated as stalwarts of the rural communities they serve. They become active members of their communities, attend their kids’ baseball games, go to weddings, join PTAs, and––most importantly––play a critical role in the health of their communities. They are healers, and the ones who often make healthcare decisions for those most near and dear to us.

When arguing about immigration, many people often miss the human element. Many of these doctors are remarkable people who become integral parts of their communities. To gain a better perspective, I reached out to my friends Mouaz and Mouhammed, who also grew up in West Virginia. They grew up as the sons of Muslim doctors. Both of their families are from Syria, both are currently enrolled in medical school, and both are keenly aware of what it will mean to become a doctor in rural America.

Mouaz said that his father, a gastroenterologist, still travels once a week to Boone and Logan Counties, West Virginia, because there are so few available gastroenterologists. His father will often come back with produce from his patients’ gardens––their way of thanking him. This is a cultural norm among West Virginians as a sign of gratitude. In Mouaz’s own words “there’s a level of trust and a special bond with his patients that isn’t nearly as common in a big city.” Despite the pervasive stereotypes, his father shows the human decency that can overcome intolerance and hate.

Mouhammed’s father is a cardiologist, and shares the same special relationship with his patients. He says he was always shocked as a kid when he was in his father’s office, and his patients would say something to the effect of “your father is a great man.” Mouhammed’s parents also have a strong relationship with the community’s veterans. Their family that has fled Syria, so they are acutely aware of what’s going on in the region, and the environment our military is being drawn into. Mouhammed said that one of the most touching things he’s seen is a World War II vet that donates to the Syrian American Medical Society every time he comes in, because they both understand what it means to be a part of a noble cause.

This means families, not dissimilar to Mouaz and Mouhammed’s, will be stuck in limbo, and could potentially suffer much greater consequences. If held up by the Supreme Court, it won’t only be Muslims suffering under the travel ban. There will also be a steep price for rural America to pay when the medical talent pool inevitably dries up.

Freddie Whitlow is from the Mountain State of West Virginia, a graduate of West Virginia University, and is a Faculty Research Assistant at Georgetown University Law Center.

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