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STEM Visa Expansion Efforts Detailed by Biden Officials

JAN 25, 2024
Immigration policy officials elaborated on efforts to streamline the visa application and renewal process for international experts in semiconductors and other key technologies.
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Science Policy Reporter, FYI American Institute of Physics
Hand touching Letter (Envelope) from USCIS on  flag of USA background.

An envelope with the logo of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

(Evgenia Parajanian / Getty Images / iStockphoto)

The National Institute of Standards and Technology held a webinar Tuesday outlining the federal government’s efforts to grow the U.S. STEM workforce in response to the CHIPS and Science Act and President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on AI.

Morgan Dwyer, chief strategy officer in the CHIPS Program Office, noted that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has set the goal of doubling the U.S. semiconductor workforce over the next decade and has urged U.S. colleges and universities to triple their graduates in semiconductor-related fields.

In addition to highlighting efforts underway to grow the domestic semiconductor workforce, Dwyer said the U.S. hopes to attract international workers by streamlining existing visa policies and procedures for skilled laborers. Representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the State Department joined the webinar to explain recent actions by the Biden administration on this front.

Simon Nakajima, assistant director for STEM immigration at OSTP, highlighted how the White House has created a webpage explaining different immigration pathways for STEM professionals. Nakajima also noted that the White House launched a set of initiatives in January 2022 to attract and retain STEM talent, including expanding the STEM Optional Practical Training program, issuing new guidance on national interest waivers for EB-2 immigrant visas, and clarifying eligibility for O-1A nonimmigrant extraordinary ability visas.

Doug Rand, a senior advisor at USCIS, explained that securing a national interest waiver for an EB-2 visa means that workers do not have to “undergo the typical Department of Labor market test – they can sponsor themselves, and they can save some time on their application.” Rand said that working in the semiconductor industry is considered “an especially positive factor” in waiver determinations, and that applicants with expertise relevant to the White House’s list of critical and emerging technologies are also more likely to be eligible for the waiver.

Rand further said that USCIS has seen a “pretty significant uptick” in the number of people pursuing the O-1A visa pathway and that the approval rate has stayed about the same. “It’s a high approval rate, it’s north of 90%. That’s not because we’re deliberately fixing the approval rate at a given level. I just want to emphasize that we’re applying the same standards. But there are a lot of people out there who might have been intimidated at first but are starting to apply for this pathway,” he said.

Moving forward, Nakajima noted more actions are planned pursuant to Biden’s AI order. For instance, the Department of Labor has issued a request for input on potential revisions to the list of occupations it deems there are not enough qualified U.S. workers to fill. “Employers seeking non-citizens to fill these occupations don’t need to complete a labor market test to bring these workers to the U.S., which saves a lot of time in the immigration process,” Nakajima said. The AI order directs the department to consider adding occupations related to AI and other STEM fields to this list, known as Schedule A.

Webinar participants also previewed some of the Biden administration’s plans to update the H-1B non-immigrant skilled visa program. Morgan O’Brien, industry liaison at the State Department, noted that the department is launching a small pilot program this month allowing current H-1B visa holders to renew their visa without having to leave the country. This is the first time in 20 years that the department has offered domestic renewals, O’Brien said.

“This is hopefully going to knock out tens if not hundreds of thousands of visa appointments that we don’t have to do overseas to open up space for those that we do by law. And ideally, this would then knock down some of those wait times that are still hanging out there and nagging not just you, but certainly us,” O’Brien said.

Notably, the AI order directs the department to also consider permitting domestic renewals for STEM students on F-1 visas and visiting scholars on J-1 visas.

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