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Expanded Options for Some Foreign Students

The Biden administration has taken steps to make the U.S. more attractive to international talent, including expanding eligibility for some foreign STEM students to participate in a popular postgraduation work program.

January 24, 2022
 
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The Biden administration on Friday announced that international graduates in 22 fields, including cloud computing, will be newly eligible to participate in the STEM optional practical training program.

The Biden administration announced a series of administrative actions aimed at attracting and retaining international students and researchers in STEM fields on Friday.

These actions include identifying 22 new fields of study eligible for the STEM optional practical training program, which allows international students in STEM fields to stay in the U.S. and work for up to three years after they graduate, rather than the typical one-year period allowed for non-STEM graduates.

The expansion will newly allow international students in a range of fields—including climate science, cloud computing, data analytics, economics and computer science, geobiology, geography and environmental studies, financial analytics, and industrial and organizational psychology—to gain additional work experience in the U.S. while remaining on a student visa.

A full list of the 22 fields newly eligible for STEM OPT, and descriptions of those fields, can be found in the Federal Register notice of the changes.

The move to expand the STEM OPT program marks a significant shift from the Trump administration, when the program was widely seen as vulnerable, legally and politically. Although it never proposed a regulation to this effect, the Trump administration expressed interest in “reducing fraud and abuse” in practical training programs like OPT and in seeking ways to “improve protections of U.S. workers who may be negatively impacted by employment of nonimmigrant students.”

OPT is very popular with international students—more than 200,000 international students used the program to gain work experience in the U.S. in the 2020–21 academic year.

“STEM innovation allows us to solve the complex challenges we face today and make a difference in how we secure and protect our country,” Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a written statement. “Through STEM education and training opportunities, DHS is expanding the number and diversity of students who excel in STEM education and contribute to the U.S. economy.”

The Department of State also announced new guidance Friday relating to the academic training program, which allows students on J-1 exchange visitor visas to work in a job related to their field of study. (The program is similar to the OPT program, except OPT is available for students on F-1 visas, while the academic training program is for students on J-1 exchange visitor visas.)

The change will allow undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields on J-1 visas to participate in academic training for up to 36 months, an increase from the maximum 18 months previously allowed in most cases.

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According to the State Department, there are currently 1,720 exchange visitors in STEM studies who are eligible for the academic training extension.

Among other changes announced Friday, the Homeland Security Department announced two updates to its policy manual.

The first change clarifies how the department determines eligibility for O-1A visas for individuals with “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, education, business or athletics. A White House fact sheet says the update clarifies how the department determines eligibility for the visas, “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.”

A second change to the manual aims to clarify how people with advanced degrees in STEM fields and entrepreneurs can take advantage of a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows an individual with “exceptional ability” to petition for an employment-based visa without having a job offer (or employer), if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services deems the waiver of the requirement they have a job offer to be in the “national interest.”

Steve Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University, said the administrative actions, taken together, “provide a small but significant step to help keep U.S. companies competitive in a global economy and to address workforce shortages.”

“Larger actions, such as increasing the number of employment-based green cards, will require congressional action,” he said.

Sarah Spreitzer, assistant vice president and chief of staff for government relations at the American Council on Education, said the Biden administration is “very much constrained by the existing statute. They haven’t been able to get comprehensive immigration legislation passed in Congress, but these are all good changes they’re taking under the existing regulatory framework. None of them are a huge change, but we think they’ll continue to send a welcoming message to our international students and scholars.”

Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said in a written statement that the association commends “the Biden-Harris administration for taking concrete action to make the United States a more attractive destination for the world’s talent and share the assertion that all Americans benefit from their presence in our classrooms, communities, and workplaces.”

Brimmer added, “We look forward to the Biden-Harris administration deepening its international education commitment and resources so that international talent from non-STEM fields may contribute to American ingenuity and innovation to a greater extent as well, and to ensure that U.S. students are able to benefit from an internationalized campus and career-enhancing study abroad experiences.”

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