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White House Announces Expansion of STEM OPT Program and Other Initiatives to Attract STEM Talent

The F-1 STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension will be expanded to 22 new degree fields, including economics and computer science, mathematical economics, data science, and data, business and financial analytics. STEM students in the J-1 exchange visitor program will be eligible for up to 36 months of OPT, increased from 18 months. New USCIS policy guidance addresses the eligibility of workers in STEM fields for the O-1A extraordinary ability nonimmigrant category and for the National Interest Waiver (NIW) of permanent labor certification in the green card process. The new guidance also clarifies the eligibility of entrepreneurs for the NIW.

A closer look

Today, the White House unveiled several policy expansions and clarifications to help attract and retain foreign nationals working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in the United States. The new initiatives affect F-1 and J-1 students in STEM academic fields, as well as STEM workers seeking the O-1 extraordinary ability nonimmigrant classification and permanent residence under the National Interest Waiver (NIW) program.

F-1 STEM OPT program expanded to new fields of study

The F-1 STEM optional practical training (OPT) extension program – which allows F-1 students with a qualifying STEM degree to hold OPT work authorization for up to 36 months – will be expanded to include 22 new degree fields. A new process will allow interested parties to nominate other degree fields for inclusion in or deletion from the STEM OPT program. 

The newly designated fields of study are 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. These fields have been added to the Department of Homeland Security’s full list of designated STEM degrees. A Federal Register notice announcing the new fields was published and takes effect today.

New guidance on STEM eligibility for the O-1 classification and National Interest Waivers

New USCIS guidance addresses O-1A eligibility for Ph.D. graduates in STEM fields, and illustrates how O-1A evidentiary criteria should be applied to foreign nationals working in STEM fields.  The guidance is intended to emphasize nonimmigrant options for foreign STEM workers beyond the H-1B category.

New policies also instruct agency adjudicators in determining whether a foreign national pursuing employment-based permanent residence is eligible for a discretionary waiver of the job offer and labor certification requirements in the U.S. national interest. The new policies are intended to make the National Interest Waiver more broadly available to foreign nationals with STEM backgrounds who are pursuing endeavors that benefit the United States, including entrepreneurial ventures. 

Initiatives for STEM J-1 exchange visitors

New State Department guidance will allow J-1 undergraduate and pre-doctoral students in STEM fields (and those who have recently completed such studies) to obtain up to 36 months of optional practical training, up from a maximum of 18 months.  This new initiative will run for the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 academic years for exchange students who meet the academic training requirements. 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. 

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