On January 21, 2022, the Biden-Harris White House messaged its continuing commitment to attracting new talent in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and that "the Departments of State and Homeland Security are announcing new actions to advance predictability and clarity for pathways for international STEM scholars, students, researchers, and experts to contribute to innovation and job creation efforts across America. These actions will allow international STEM talent to continue to make meaningful contributions to America's scholarly, research and development, and innovation communities."

The White House announcement stated that the agency initiatives "build on the Biden Administration's efforts to remove barriers to legal immigration, such as under Executive Order 14012, Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans, and to promote educational exchange, such as under the recent Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education issued by Secretaries Blinken and Cardona."

The agency announcements highlighted in the White House and agency statements include the following.

ECA STEM Initiatives for J-1 Students

Early Career STEM Research Initiative

White House Fact Sheet description: "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."

NAFSA notes, from ECA FAQs:

  • Eligible J-1 categories for participation include Professors and Research Scholars, Short-term Scholars, Trainees and Interns, College and University Students, and Specialists.
  • "The STEM Initiative will connect U.S.-based STEM entities interested in serving as host organizations with BridgeUSA sponsors of STEM-focused exchange visitors seeking opportunities in the United States... Prospective host organizations and sponsors should sign the respective “STEM Statement of Interest,” available for download here: https://j1visa.state.gov/programs/early-career-stem-research-initiative/ and email a copy to [email protected]. The statement does not create any new regulatory or program requirements. These statements serve as a mechanism to recognize the STEM Initiative’s active partners and allow them to self-identify for participation."
  • "BridgeUSA will share the names and details of participating host organizations with the participating sponsors who have signed the STEM Statement of Interest. Sponsors can reach out to host organization’s points of contact and follow their own internal procedures to determine whether a placement meets category-specific regulatory requirements and the goals and objectives of the Exchange Visitor Program... Host organizations are instructed that if they agree to pursue a partnership with a Department-designated sponsor, that sponsor will be their primary resource and implementing partner for the duration of the exchange."

Up to 36 Months of J-1 Academic Training for Pre-Doctoral STEM Students

White House Fact Sheet description: "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."

NAFSA notes:

On January 21, 2022, DOS-ECA announced a temporary program in which undergraduate and graduate J-1 college and university students in STEM fields can be eligible for up 36 months of academic training. They are normally limited to a maximum of 18 months of academic training like all other pre-doctoral J-1 college and university students. Read the DOS BridgeUSA announcement. NAFSA notes:

  • This would give "undergraduate and pre-doctoral degree-seeking J-1 College and University students" in STEM fields eligibility for up to 36 months of academic training, which is the same amount that J-1 "post-doctoral" students currently have in any field.
  • Students eligible for this special STEM academic training extension are eligible only for up to 36 months of authorization or the period of the full course of study in the United States, whichever is less. BridgeUSA gives the following example in its FAQs: "Exchange visitors in one-year programs are only eligible for one year of academic training, two-year university programs are eligible for two years of academic training, and four-year programs are eligible for the maximum three years of academic training."
  • Non-degree seeking students are not eligible to apply for the special STEM academic training extension.
  • This is a temporary initiative, limited to the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years.
  • The DOS notice says that sponsors must apply for the extensions under 22 CFR 62.43(c) , which is the provision allowing program extensions beyond the normal limits (in this case, beyond the normal limit of 18 months of academic training at the pre-doctoral level).
  • The DOS notice requires the Responsible Officer to "secure prior written approval by submitting extension requests through the Private Sector's Office of Designation via [email protected]. As part of the required written justification [NAFSA note: required by 22 CFR 62.43(c) ], sponsors should indicate the STEM field and corresponding Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code relating to the subject-matter of the extension. A complete list of STEM field CIP codes for which exchange students are eligible to apply for this academic training extension is included in the Department of Homeland Security’s STEM Designated Degree Program List at the following address: https://www.ice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/stem-list.pdf."
  • 22 CFR 62.17(b)(2) normally requires paying a $367 fee to request an extension under 22 CFR 62.43(c) . It was unclear from the DOS notice whether sponsors will have to pay that fee for these STEM Academic Training extensions under the special temporary program. However, ROs who have contacted AMexchanges about this report that the Office of Private Sector Exchange has responded that there is no fee for Academic Training under this initiative, and that the RO should submit an extension request for each exchange visitor eligible for the extension under this initiative following the procedures outlined in the notice.
  • The DOS notice also says that "Private Sector may, at its discretion, conduct a site visit to ensure that program requirements are being met, including that the host possesses and maintains the ability, personnel, and resources to provide structured and guided work-based training experiences that achieve a program’s stated goals and objectives as required by 22 CFR. §62.23(f)(6)." However, 22 CFR 62.23(f)(6) simply requires J-1 program sponsors to "evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of the academic training in achieving the stated goals and objectives in order to ensure the quality of the academic training program." The specific requirement to "provide structured and guided work-based training experiences that achieve a program's stated goals and objectives" is found only in regulations governing the Trainee, Intern, and Student Intern categories. It is unclear how DOS is extending Trainee, Intern, and Student Intern categories rules to this temporary student academic training program.

DHS STEM Initiatives

DHS Adds 22 Fields to STEM Designated Degree Program List

White House Fact Sheet description: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas is announcing that 22 new fields of study are now included in the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The program permits F-1 students earning Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorates in certain STEM fields to remain in the United States for up to 36 months to complete Optional Practical Training after earning their degrees. Information on the new fields of study will be communicated to schools and students in a forthcoming Federal Register notice. 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.

NAFSA note: See NAFSA's page: DHS Adds 22 Fields to STEM Designated Degree Program List. The new fields are effective on January 21, 2022.

STEM-Specific Policy Guidance for O-1 Extraordinary Ability Category

White House Fact Sheet description:"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. O-1A nonimmigrant status is available to persons of extraordinary ability in the fields of science, business, education, or athletics. 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."

NAFSA note: See USCIS Policy Manual at 2 USCIS-PM M.4 – Chapter 4 - O-1 Beneficiaries

The USCIS Policy Alert introducing this update to the USCIS Policy Manual describes these highlights of the policy revisions:

  • Adds a chart in an appendix describing examples of evidence that may satisfy the O-1A evidentiary criteria, as well as considerations that are relevant to evaluating such evidence (with a focus on evidence and considerations that are relevant to STEM fields).
  • Provides examples of qualifying comparable evidence that petitioners could provide in support of a petition for a beneficiary in a STEM field. Clarifies how officers evaluate the totality of the evidence to determine O-1A eligibility and provides examples of positive factors that officers may consider.
  • Explains that when evaluating whether a beneficiary of extraordinary ability is coming to work in the beneficiary's "area of extraordinary ability," officers focus on whether the prospective work involves skillsets, knowledge, or expertise shared with the occupation(s) in which the beneficiary garnered acclaim.
  • Clarifies that for a beneficiary with a record of extraordinary achievement in MPTV productions, USCIS interprets the beneficiary's "area of extraordinary achievement" to include any proposed work within the MPTV industry.

STEM-Specific Policy Guidance for National Interest Waivers of the Labor Certification Requirement

White House Fact Sheet description:"With respect to immigration, DHS is issuing an update to its policy manual on how U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a DHS component, adjudicates national interest waivers for certain immigrants with exceptional abilities in their field of work. 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. The USCIS 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. This update will promote efficient and effective benefit processing as USCIS reviews requests for national interest waivers. This effort is consistent with the Biden-Harris Administration's priorities to restore faith in the legal immigration system."

NAFSA note: See 6 USCIS-PM F.5 – Chapter 5 - Advanced Degree or Exceptional Ability

The USCIS Policy Alert introducing this update to the USCIS Policy Manual describes these highlights of the policy revisions:

  • "Explains adjudicatory framework for national interest waiver requests under Matter of Dhanasar,4 including special considerations for endeavors in STEM fields, as well as the significance of letters from governmental and quasi-governmental entities.
  • Expands on the discussion in Matter of Dhanasar, to explain how the framework can apply to entrepreneurs.
  • Incorporates Matter of O-A, Inc.,6 explaining that USCIS considers the date of a provisional degree certificate for purposes of calculating post-baccalaureate experience."