FEARS of a glut of doctors led to calls this week for a clampdown on the number of foreign medical students allowed to train and practise in the United States.
Six medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, joined in urging Congress to limit places on US residency programmes almost solely to American medical school graduates.
But critics said that under the guise of reducing the supply of physicians, the proposal was another attack on the rights of immigrants.
John Ronches, director of the Committee of Interns and Residents, a New York-based union, said: "Whatever the ills are, it seems people these days are more likely to blame people who came from other countries."
About 23,000 foreign medical students trained in the US in 1993, the last year for which figures were available, almost double the number in 1988. The largest numbers come from India, followed by Pakistan, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom. About 75 per cent remained in the country, some earning residency in return for working in "medically underserved" areas, such as inner cities A move last year to bar federal funds for training foreign graduates was blocked by a coalition that included the Greater New York Hospital Association, alumni associations, and cultural groups.
Mr Ronches said he was sure that this time, too, "wiser and cooler heads" would prevail.
Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said it was "emphatically not" the intention to single out or target foreign-trained physicians. But the situation had changed from 30 years ago, he said, when the US both feared a shortage of home-grown doctors and had a mission to raise healthcare standards round the world. Now the numbers of foreign graduates were creating a "doctor surplus".
One report has estimated a future surplus of 100,000-150,000 doctors. "Why in the world would the US not want to give preference to its own high-quality medical graduates in whom we and they have already invested so much?" he asked.