Engineer WorkforceImmigration Reform

White House Proposes Modest Visa Reforms

By Russell Harrison

The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House has announced plans for several small changes to high-skill visa regulations.  While the details have not been fully developed, most of these reforms will make it easier for IEEE members to work in the United States.

Starting with students, the White House has proposed expanding Optional Practical Training (OPT) status for some degrees and fields.  OPT allows STEM graduates of U.S. universities to work in the United States after graduating.  The number of months a student’s OPT status lasts depends on their field, but can be as long as three years.  The White House is proposing to add additional STEM degree fields to the list of fields eligible for the full three years.  While most degrees earned by IEEE members already qualify for the maximum, a few newer emerging fields will be added to ensure that all engineering students are included.

After leaving their student visas, the White House is proposing to help STEM students to acquire an O temporary visa or an EB-2 green card.  In each case, qualification criteria for the visas will be adjusted to make it easier for immigrants with STEM degrees to qualify.

The O visa, or “Nobel Visa,” is notoriously hard to get – intentionally.  The visa is supposed to be used only by people of “Outstanding ability” in their fields, which make it especially hard for younger IEEE members to use.  The White House wants to relax these standards a little bit to make the O more attractive to exceptional STEM professionals.  The O visa is a temporary visa, so it can’t lead directly to citizenship, but does offer workers more freedom than the H-1B visa.  Making more O visas available to technology professionals will, therefore, improve the immigration process for those workers.

Eb visas are the most common green cards used by IEEE members to immigrate into the United States.  EB-2 visas are typically used by candidates with Masters degrees.  While there is a backlog for EB-2 visas, it is much shorter than the backlog for EB-3 workers, who typically have Bachelors degrees.  The White House’s proposal would make some EB-3 applicants eligible for an EB-2 instead, which could shorten their wait time by many years.

On the other hand, since the White House lacks the authority to create more EB visas without help from Congress, this reform won’t change the average wait time for all applicants, nor help those still trapped in the EB-3 system.  Moving some immigrants into the EB-2 category is good for those individuals, which IEEE-USA supports, but won’t help fix the more systemic problems with the EB visa.

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Lastly, the White House has proposed making it easier for STEM researchers to use a J visa.  This change is more troubling.  The J visa, or “Exchange Visitor” visa, is supposed to be used by people who want to learn about American culture, enhance their language skills, or teach.  Over the years, it has evolved into a visa used by international workers in a specific set of fields to work in the United States.  These fields include au pairs, camp counselors and seasonal workers, but also include university lecturers and researchers.  The proposed reforms will make it easier for university researchers to use a J visa, although probably not anyone else.

The J visa, like the O visa, is a temporary visa, which means it can’t be used to transition directly to American citizenship.  Unlike the O visa, the J visa usually has a fixed duration – typically two years – and cannot be extended.  Two years is insufficient time to navigate the green card process, which is why J visa holders rarely go on to become citizens.  In fact, the program is designed not to create American citizens, although making the transition is not technically prohibited.

IEEE-USA is concerned that relying on the J visa could trap potential immigrants in a legal status that does not offer them a reasonable chance of gaining permanent legal status, and therefore places citizenship off limits.  IEEE-USA strongly support high-skill immigration into the Untied States, but knows true immigration requires permanent legal residency and, if desired, citizenship.  Temporary visas, such as the J, that do not offer a reasonable route to a green card are not optimal options for most potential immigrants.

Setting aside our concerns about the J visa, the other reforms are modest, but positive.  They won’t dramatically speed the skill-based immigration process, but should make that process a little less unpleasant.  Real systematic reform to America’s high-skill immigration system, however, will have to wait for action from Congress.


Russell Harrison is IEEE-USA’s director of government relations.

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Russell Harrison

Russell Harrison is IEEE-USA's director of government relations.

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