HONOLULU (KHON2) — Hawaii is home to more than a quarter of a million immigrants who contribute to the state’s workforce and economy, especially in the health care industry. They make up almost half of health aides, nearly a quarter of all nurses and about 20% of physicians in Hawaii.

On Tuesday, Sen. Mazie Hirono emphasized the need for immigration reform to address the shortage of health care workers in Hawaii and across the nation.

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“If there’s one thing that the pandemic showed, it was the importance of the essential workers, of whom—many of them, of course, our doctors, our nurses, our health care workers—stretched thin to the brink of exhaustion during the two years of the pandemic, and it’s still not over,” Hirono said during the hearing.

She said Hawaii is currently experiencing a shortage of over 700 physicians which emphasizes the urgent need to address the health care worker shortage. Last month, Gov. David Ige signed emergency rules authorizing out-of-state nurses to temporarily practice in Hawaii without obtaining a license from the state.

“So it’s a crisis,” Hirono told KHON2 after the hearing. “People in Hawaii and all across the country are having to wait because they are not able to access the doctors who can provide them the services they need.”

“All of this was brought very much to the forefront during the pandemic when doctors, nurses and health aides were essential workers and they were working overtime,” said Hirono.

Nationwide, immigrants account for 18% of the 14.7 million health care workers in the U.S. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety, Hirono wants to fix the immigration system to address the strain caused by the worker shortage in the health care industry.

“It’s a crisis proportion, so that’s what today’s hearing was about,” said Hirono. “How can we enable more international healthcare workers, international doctors, to be able to remain in our country, to come to our country, to fill this huge need?”

Though this is a crisis situation, she added that the need to fix the legal immigration system is not a new issue because she worked on immigration reform back in 2013, addressing the same things.

“And here we are, 2022, confronting the huge need for doctors and nurses and health aides,” she said.

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Hirono is a cosponsor of the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, including health care workers, and their immediate families.