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Changes Make Immigration in STEM Fields Easier

Vishnu Mohanan Vtg8T Ado Wvq Unsplash

As immigration lawyers, we work extensively with employment and education-based immigration. It was difficult to watch the previous administration make immigration in those areas more difficult because it was nakedly not in the national interest. Studies consistently show that immigrants in general and particularly those in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—are good for the economy and create jobs. Nonetheless, the previous administration took measures that made the United States a less appealing place for international students to attend university and made it harder for them to complete Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is often the bridge between school and employment and/or entrepreneurial opportunities.

As The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell wrote, those measures “generally involved making life hell—or at least purgatory—for the foreign-born scientists, scholars, engineers and entrepreneurs trying to contribute to the U.S. economy.” 

Last week, the Biden administration announced “Biden-⁠Harris Administration Actions to Attract STEM Talent and Strengthen our Economy and Competitiveness,” which took measures to reverse those constraints and attract the foreign-born talent that has historically contributed to American excellence in the sciences. In short, they broadened the number of fields that will fall under the favored STEM umbrella for OPT and took steps to make the process of applying for O-1A Extraordinary Ability visas and EB-2 National Interest Waivers simpler, more transparent, and more predictable.

We see three major changes:

  • - STEM: If you are on an F-1 visa in the newly identified fields, the likelihood of qualifying for OPT has gone up. If you have tech skills that can help the U.S. stay competitive or boost U.S. national security, the chances of qualifying for a National Interest Waiver (NIW) have gone up. If you have a Ph.D and can get a letter of support from a U.S. government agency, those odds have gone up. Ph.Ds in the new STEM fields will now have a very good chance of receiving an NIW.
  • - Letters from Government Agencies: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has increased the value of these letters for evaluating NIW applications. There is no guidance to say that these must come from heads of agencies, which makes the process less onerous.
  • - Entrepreneurs: USCIS updated its evidentiary considerations for entrepreneurs' applications and created an updated list of acceptable documents to establish eligibility. This should open the door further for business owners who are stimulating our economy but whose skills didn't previously fit well into the NIW criteria. 

“STEM innovation allows us to solve the complex challenges we face today and make a difference in how we secure and protect our country,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Through STEM education and training opportunities, DHS is expanding the number and diversity of students who excel in STEM education and contribute to the U.S. economy.”

Mayorkas’ comments and the changes’ title make their purpose clear. Other countries including Canada experienced growth in the recruitment of international students in STEM fields in recent years while the number coming to the U.S. declined. The current administration wants to change those trend lines and once again make the United States the first choice for students in the science and technology fields. 

To that end, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added 22 new degree programs to list of programs that make graduates eligible for OPT, which allows them work for up the three years in the U.S. after finishing their degrees. The new programs are Bioenergy, Forestry, General, Forest Resources Production and Management, Human-Centered Technology Design, Cloud Computing, Anthrozoology, Climate Science, Earth Systems Science, Economics and Computer Science, Environmental Geosciences, Geobiology, Geography and Environmental Studies, Mathematical Economics, Mathematics and Atmospheric/Oceanic Science, Data Science, General, Data Analytics, General, Business Analytics, Data Visualization, Financial Analytics, Data Analytics, Other, Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Social Sciences, Research Methodology and Quantitative Methods.

The other changes are more bureaucratic as they lessen the evidentiary burden necessary to support the students’ visa applications. Collectively, these changes make this a good time for international students to consider furthering their education in the U.S. and using that as part of the process of immigrating to the States. 

If you want to know how these changes apply to you or want a more detailed breakdown of the changes, we’d be happy to go over them with you. If you know others who might benefit from these changes, let them know. We can’t be sure that a future administration won’t try to reverse these changes, even if they are in the country’s best interest.  

Photo by Vishnu Mohanan on Unsplash

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