White House Announces Expansion of STEM OPT Program for F-1 and J-1, and New Initiatives Benefitting O-1 and NIW Applicants

Welcome back to Immigration Lawyer Blog! We kick off the start of a brand-new week with new White House initiatives expanding the post-completion Optional Practical Training program for STEM international students, as well as other government initiatives to attract entrepreneurs and highly skilled professionals to the United States seeking O-1 visas and National Interest Waivers.

Want to know more? Just keep on watching!


White House Releases Initiative Expanding STEM OPT

We are excited to share that just last week, the White House announced a series of policy changes designed to attract and retain the knowledge and training of international students working toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) related fields in the United States. Among these new initiatives, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has announced the expansion of the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, with the addition of 22 new fields of study to the STEM Degree Program List, including economics, computer science, mathematical economics, data science, business and financial analytics.

Currently, the F-1 STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension program grants F-1 students with a qualifying STEM degree, the ability to work in the United States with OPT work authorization for a period of up to 36 months. This expansion of the program will now increase the pool of candidates eligible to receive employment authorization.

Some of the newly added fields of study include: 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; Social Sciences, Research Methodology and Quantitative Methods. To view a complete list of qualifying fields, please click here to view the Federal Register notice.

OPT Initiatives for STEM J-1 exchange visitors

New initiatives have also been announced for J-1 exchange visitors participating in academic training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) during the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years. The government will now allow J-1 undergraduate and pre-doctoral students in STEM fields (and those who have recently completed such studies) the ability to obtain up to 36 months of optional practical training, up from a maximum of 18 months.

To be eligible, exchange program sponsors may request STEM-related academic training for up to 36 months for eligible students and recent graduates who seek to commence academic training no later than 30 days after completion of their STEM-related studies.

The State Department will also launch an “Early Career STEM Research Initiative,” to facilitate J-1 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.

New Policy Changes for O-1 Visa Applicants and EB-2 National Interest Waivers

Finally, USCIS has released new guidance that clarifies how the agency determines eligibility for immigrants of extraordinary abilities, such as PHD holders, in the science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields, beyond guidance initially provided for H-1B visa holders.

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.

With respect to the EB-2 National Interest Waiver, USCIS has issued an updated policy manual explaining how the agency adjudicates NIWs for certain immigrants with exceptional abilities in their field of work.

The USCIS policy guidance 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. These new policies are designed to expand eligibility for the National Interest Waiver for individuals with advanced degrees in the STEM fields who wish to work in an area of national interest, including entrepreneurship.

Looking Forward

The White House initiatives are the beginning of what will hopefully broaden the pathway to permanent residency for many talented foreign nationals with STEM backgrounds educated in the United States. The government is clearly making it a top priority to keep such talented individuals in the United States by clarifying the adjudication process and eligibility of those who wish to seek an O-1 or National Interest Waiver after their employment eligibility runs out. We hope to see more initiatives like these in the years to come. We will continue to monitor these new policy changes and post updates right here on our blog.

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