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New U.S. immigration rules spur more visa approvals for STEM workers

This month Sanjay (not his real name) opened his mail to find a document giving him the right to live and work permanently in the United States. Getting a green card marks the highlight of a 16-year immigration odyssey for the Indian-born software engineer, who came to the United States on a college scholarship and later founded an artificial intelligence (AI) company that helps banks protect assets using a patent he invented.

According to newly released data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), more foreign-born workers in science, technology, engineering, and math fields are enjoying such happy endings. The jump comes after USCIS in January 2022 tweaked its guidance criteria relating to two visa categories available to STEM workers. One is the O1-A, a temporary visa for “aliens of “extraordinary ability” that often paves the way to a green card. The second, which bestows a green card on those with advanced STEM degrees, governs a subset of an EB-2 (employment-based) visa.

The USCIS data, reported exclusively by ScienceInsider, show that the number of O-1A visas awarded in the first year of the revised guidance jumped by almost 30%, to 4570, and held steady in fiscal year 2023, which ended on 30 September. Similarly, the number of STEM EB-2 visas approved in 2022 after a “national interest” waiver shot up by 55% over 2021, to 70,240, and stayed at that level in 2023.

“I’m seeing more aspiring and early-stage startup founders believe there’s a way forward for them,” says Silicon Valley immigration attorney Sophie Alcorn. She predicts the policy changes will result in “new technology startups that would not have otherwise been created.”

Seattle attorney Tahmina Watson, author of The Startup Visa: U.S. Immigration Visa Guide for Startups and Founders, agrees and also thinks USCIS got it right. “To their credit, USCIS has set reasonable standards and is implementing the guidance in a way that is allowing people to get approved,” she says.

President Joe Biden has long sought to make it easier for foreign-born STEM workers to remain in the country and use their talent to spur the U.S. economy. But under the terms of a 1990 law, only 140,000 employment-based green cards may be issued annually, and no more than 7% of those can go to citizens of any one country. The ceiling is well below the demand. And the country quotas have created decadeslong queues for scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs born in India and China.

Read More : Science 

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