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Vedder Thinking | Articles New Immigration Policies Announced Designed to Attract and Retain STEM Talent


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On January 21, 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a set of immigration policy changes aimed at better welcoming Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) students and scholars from abroad and enabling them to remain in the United States.  Collectively, these policies seek to provide greater certainty and clarity for pathways allowing for international STEM talent to contribute their expertise to the United States after completing university in the United States; to enter the United States as researchers or workers; or to apply for permanent residence in the United States.

Among the changes, the Department of Homeland Security added 22 new STEM fields to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.  The OPT program allows noncitizen students to work in the United States for a period of time after graduation.  The policy changes to the program make students in the 22 newly listed fields eligible for a 24-month extension of employment authorization that is available to individuals with a degree in a qualifying STEM field.  The announcement stated the added fields of study are “primarily new multidisciplinary or emerging fields, and are critical in attracting talent to support U.S. economic growth and technological competitiveness.”

Other policy changes relate to procedures the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) uses when determining visa eligibility.  First, USCIS updated its policy manual to provide additional examples of evidence of STEM expertise that applicants can submit when seeking O-1A visas, which are conferred to persons of “extraordinary ability” in certain fields.  

Second, the Administration released new guidance for employment-based permanent residency offered through the National Interest Waiver, which enables advanced-degree holders or persons with exceptional ability to bypass a requirement that they have a job offer in hand to seek an employment-based green card.  USCIS is now directed to consider a doctoral degree to be an “especially positive factor” when considering granting the waiver, especially in fields of critical importance to the United States as defined by the National Science and Technology Council or the National Security Council.  USCIS is also instructed to take into account letters of support provided by federal agencies or federally funded research centers.

Finally, the Administration announced a new State Department-led “Early Career STEM Research Initiative” that aims to facilitate nonimmigrant J-1 exchange visitors’ engagement in STEM fields through research or training with host organizations, including businesses. The State Department announced that STEM undergraduate and graduate students on J-1 visas can receive up to 36 months of academic training, raising the current limit from 18 months.



Sara B. DeBlaze