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New STEM changes in F-1, J-1, O-1A and National Interest Waivers

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

The Biden administration on Friday announced multiple welcome changes in the Immigration policy treatment of STEM fields that provide great opportunities to the people holding F-1 and J-1 Visas.


It has also made transparent the evidence required for people with a STEM background to obtain an O-1A Visa (extraordinary ability visa) which for a very long time has been shrouded in secrecy and had been left at the discretion of USCIS case workers.


Furthermore, the changes announced also impacts applicants for National Interest Waivers (NIW), as applicants for a green card based upon a demonstration that the intended immigrant will serve the national interest of the United States.


Let's explore each item in more detail below.


STEM changes in F1, J1 & O1A Visas
STEM changes in F1, J1 & O1A Visas

22 New Fields added to STEM OPT:

New Changes

  • The DHS announced 22 new fields of study that are now included in the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT).

  • This means that the students of these 22 new fields included under STEM OPT will now have an additional 24 months of OPT after their initial 1 year.

The new fields added are:

Bioenergy, general forestry, 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 and oceanic science, general data science, general data analytics, business analytics, data visualization, financial analytics, other data analytics, industrial and organizational psychology, and social sciences, research methodology, and quantitative methods.


Analysis:

This is a welcome news for International students in these 22 fields of study. Previously the OPT for these 22 fields was capped at just 1 year which is often a short period for them to find a job, apply for H-1B and get selected in the lottery.


Full update from DHS


Announcements about the J-1 Visa


New Changes:


  • The policy notes: This will allow the students in these fields the opportunity to receive STEM extension if they have a job in the field.

  • The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is announcing an “Early Career STEM Research Initiative,” to facilitate non-immigrant BridgeUSA exchange visitors coming to the United States 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 facilitate additional academic training for undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields on the J-1 visa for periods of up to 36 months.

O-1A Visa Changes & Announcements:

Background:


O-1A Visa is for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (not including the arts, motion pictures or television industry)."

In the past, USCIS has adopted a narrow view of who is eligible for the visas. A Biden administration official said on background the new policy is expected to expand significantly the eligibility for O-1A visas in STEM fields.


New Announcement & Changes

  • DHS is issuing an update to its policy manual related to “extraordinary ability” (O-1A) nonimmigrant status regarding what evidence may satisfy the O-1A evidentiary criteria.

  • In this update, DHS is clarifying how it determines eligibility for immigrants of extraordinary abilities, such as PHD holders, in the science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields.

  • The new update provides examples of evidence that may satisfy the O-1A evidentiary criteria and discusses considerations that are relevant to evaluating such evidence, with a focus on the highly technical nature of STEM fields and the complexity of the evidence often submitted.

  • The update also emphasizes that, if a petitioner demonstrates that a particular criterion does not readily apply to their occupation, they may submit evidence that is of comparable significance to that criterion to establish sustained acclaim and recognition.

  • Additionally, it provides examples of possible comparable evidence that may be submitted in support of petitions for beneficiaries working in STEM fields.

Analysis:

As mentioned earlier, this brings a lot of transparency to how can someone get the O-1A visa and also makes it relatively easier to obtain by mentioning what exactly is needed.


The Full update covering evidentiary criteria, examples of evidence, examples of evidence that is of comparable significance can be found here


National Interest Waivers (NIW)

Background:


The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides that an employer can file an immigrant petition for a person of exceptional ability or a member of the professions with an advanced degree. The INA 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.


What's New?

The policy update clarifies how the national interest waiver can be used for persons with advanced degrees in STEM fields and entrepreneurs, as well as the significance of letters from governmental and quasi-governmental entities.


Analysis:

Note that for persons born in countries with green card backlogs like India, NIW is not particularly attractive because it falls under the severely backlogged employment-based category 2 (EB-2).

However, it may help at least to get them in the queue for a Green Card by getting an I-140 Approval.


(See here for the USCIS policy manual update on national interest waivers.)


Overall Analysis of the new update

Of course this is welcome update. In fact any such changes are always welcome. The current update stems from the fact that more and more International students are choosing to stay away from the US because of the complex Immigration system. The new changes might tilt some students in the favor of the US as an attractive destination for students.


Having said that, The State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still need to improve processing, and Congress must enact many immigration reforms. Notable reforms would include increasing the number of employment-based green cards and H-1B visas and eliminating the per-country limit for employer-sponsored immigrants.


Sources:

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