Last week the Biden Administration announced several new immigration actions they are taking to attract STEM talent and strengthen the nation’s competitiveness. The actions are being taken by both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and are designed to ease the pathway for foreign students studying in the US to stay and work in the country once their studies have finished. The changes are more technical tweaks, rather than broad reforms, which would require new legislation from Congress. However, many of the changes have long been advocated by the higher education and high-tech communities and should provide some relief.
Of perhaps most note for the computing community are the 22 new fields of study being added to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. OPT is a program that permits F-1 students earning bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees in certain STEM fields to remain in the US for up to 36 months to work in their field of study. CS and IT fields are heavily represented in the group of new fields. Of particular note is data science; its exclusion from the OPT STEM category has come up in several instances with CS and CE departments recently. CRA has been helping these affected departments navigate the byzantine regulatory system of OPT, so the inclusion of several new CS/IT fields of study is a welcome win for the community.
Other actions being taken by DHS include:
– Updating its policy manual related to “extraordinary ability” (O-1A) nonimmigrant status regarding what evidence may satisfy the O-1A evidentiary criteria. O-1A nonimmigrant status is available to persons of extraordinary ability in the fields of science, business, education, or athletics, though it has rarely been used by the STEM community. DHS is clarifying how it determines “extraordinary abilities,” such as PHD holders, in the STEM fields and will provide examples of evidence that can be submitted by petitioners, as well as how to provide evidence of comparable significance.
– DHS is also issuing an update to its policy manual on how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) adjudicates national interest waivers for certain immigrants with exceptional abilities in their field of work. Current law provides that USCIS may waive a job offer requirement, allowing immigrants whose work is in the national interest to petition for themselves, without an employer; the USCIS policy update clarifies how the national interest waiver can be used for persons with advanced degrees in STEM fields and entrepreneurs.
Additionally, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is announcing a new “Early Career STEM Research Initiative.” This is to facilitate non-immigrant BridgeUSA exchange visitors coming to the US to engage in STEM research through research, training or educational exchange visitor programs with host organizations, including businesses. ECA is also announcing new guidance that will allow undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields on the J-1 visa to stay in the US for periods of up to 36 months after their programs conclude. The 36-month timeframe is the current amount of time just for PhD students; other educational levels had less time.
While these are good and long-overdue changes that provide much needed assistance to the STEM community and the nation’s high-tech workforce, they are technical tweaks, rather than transformative reforms. Given the US governmental system, the executive branch is constrained in how far they are able to make changes without the input of the legislature. Hopefully, Congress will see these actions and take up broader high-skilled immigration changes in order to provide more relief for the country’s STEM community and workforce. CRA will continue to monitor these issues and report on any new developments.