This month, a software engineer (referred to as Sanjay for anonymity) received a document granting him permanent residency in the United States, marking the culmination of his 16-year immigration journey. Sanjay, originally from India, arrived in the U.S. on a college scholarship and later founded an AI company that developed a patent to safeguard banks’ assets.
Newly released data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reveals that more foreign-born workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are experiencing similar successes. This increase follows USCIS’s January 2022 revisions to its guidance criteria for two visa categories available to STEM workers: the O1-A temporary visa for individuals of “extraordinary ability” and the EB-2 visa for those with advanced STEM degrees.
USCIS data, exclusively reported by ScienceInsider, indicates that the number of O-1A visas granted in the first year of the revised guidance rose by nearly 30% to 4,570 and remained steady in fiscal year 2023. Likewise, STEM EB-2 visa approvals in 2022 surged by 55% compared to 2021, reaching 70,240, and maintained that level in 2023.
Silicon Valley immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn sees these policy changes as a catalyst for aspiring startup founders, leading to the creation of new technology startups that might not have otherwise emerged. Seattle attorney Tahmina Watson, author of “The Startup Visa: U.S. Immigration Visa Guide for Startups and Founders,” concurs, praising USCIS for setting reasonable standards and facilitating approvals.
President Joe Biden has long aimed to simplify the process for foreign-born STEM workers to contribute to the U.S. economy. However, due to a 1990 law, annual employment-based green card issuance is capped at 140,000, with no more than 7% per country. This limitation falls short of the demand, creating lengthy queues for Indian and Chinese scientists and tech entrepreneurs.
The 2022 guidance doesn’t change these green card limits but clarifies the visa process for foreign-born scientists while awaiting potential amendments to the 1990 law. The O-1A work visa, renewable indefinitely, accelerates the path to a green card for high-tech entrepreneurs. Notably, the 2022 guidance outlined specific criteria, such as awards and peer-reviewed publications, and required applicants to meet at least three of these criteria.
The second policy change affects those with advanced STEM degrees seeking a national interest waiver for an EB-2 visa. The standard process involves demonstrating a lack of qualified domestic workers and adhering to wage standards. USCIS’s 2022 guidance streamlined this process by specifying criteria and allowing scientists to self-sponsor.
For many, like Sanjay, these policy changes would have eased their paths to green cards. A decade ago, Sanjay faced a lengthy wait in the EB-2 queue before learning about the O-1A option, which eventually led to his green card. The 2022 guidance’s clarity and criteria could have helped others like him.
High-tech entrepreneurs on temporary visas often struggle with imposter syndrome and fear jeopardizing their immigration status. USCIS’s new guidance addresses these concerns by inviting applicants to showcase their achievements and providing clear guidelines.
Doug Rand, senior adviser to the USCIS director, is pleased that the guidance is enabling more foreign-born scientists and entrepreneurs to follow suit. Increased demand may even prompt Congress to consider raising the cap on employment-based STEM visas as part of broader immigration reform.
These changes signify positive developments for STEM workers seeking permanent residency in the United States, fostering innovation and economic growth.
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