The Biden Administration has announced that it is undertaking efforts designed to attract and retain foreign students in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields. These initiatives will of course benefit foreign students in the STEM fields, but they are also expected to make it easier for U.S. employers to obtain work visas or permanent resident status for foreign STEM students.

Here is a summary of the actions taken by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs:

  • Extension of J-1 STEM academic training up to 36 months. The current period of academic training for J-1 exchange students is 18 months. However, for the next two academic years (2021-2022 and 2022-2023), J-1 undergraduate and postgraduate STEM students who meet the academic training requirements may receive an additional 24 months and up to a total of 36 months of postgraduate academic training in STEM fields. In other words, they would be treated like STEM OPT F-1 students.

  • Launch of an “Early Career STEM Research Initiative.” The purpose of this initiative is “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.”

  • Expansion of STEM fields and further opportunities for STEM OPT students. Effective January 21, “STEM” has been expanded to include 22 new academic areas. These include Economics and Computer Science, Mathematical Economics, Data Science, and Data, Business and Financial Analytics. The expansion means that more F-1 students will graduate in STEM fields and be eligible to work for the additional 24 months of STEM OPT (beyond the initial 12 months of OPT). The Fact Sheet states, “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.”

  • Clarification of O-1A requirements, including for STEM graduates. The DHS issued an update to its policy manual related to “extraordinary ability” (O-1A) nonimmigrants regarding the evidence that 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. The update “provides examples of evidence” that can be provided in support of an O-1A petition with increased emphasis on STEM fields. It also clarifies that the petitioner can submit comparable evidence if a particular criterion does not apply to the beneficiary’s occupation, and provides examples for beneficiaries working in STEM fields.

  • Adjudicating National Interest Waivers and the importance of STEM fields in this determination. The DHS also updated its policy manual regarding employment-based permanent residence petitions for Master’s and higher degree-level beneficiaries who seek a discretionary waiver of the job offer and labor certification (PERM) requirements based on a National Interest waiver. The new policies emphasize the importance of STEM technology to U.S. competitiveness. This is expected to make it easier for foreign nationals with STEM backgrounds to get National Interest Waivers, provided that they are engaged in pursuits that benefit the United States, including entrepreneurial endeavors.

Conclusion

These initiatives offer broader postgraduate employment options for STEM-educated foreign students in the United States. From the standpoint of U.S. employers, the result will be an expanded pool of STEM applicants, creating further incentives for employers to sponsor STEM students.

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