International students make up the vast majority of students enrolled in US university classes in electrical engineering, computer science, industrial engineering, statistics, and mechanical engineering. They make up smaller majorities in other STEM fields (STEM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math”).

In past years this was America’s advantage because these students would typically seek green cards no matter what the obstacles.

Now, however, the “brain drain” is working against the United States. Due to economic advances in many of these students’ home countries, particularly China, many seek to return home after graduation or are at least willing to return home if significant immigration obstacles block their path. This state of affairs should be considered a national security issue of the first degree.

Reversing the Brain Drain

One of the ways that US policy makers are attempting to address this problem is by making it easier for these students to obtain permanent residence in the United States, as a way of keeping the “brain drain” favorable to the US.. The proposed STEM visa arose directly from this concern. Unusually, the basic idea behind the proposed STEM visa — that the US needs immigration to meet the demand for STEM expertise — enjoys broad bipartisan support.

The Specifics

Although no legislation has been passed to date, it appears that a future STEM visa will incorporate the following features:

  • An annual quota of 55,000 visas, almost as high as the current H-1B quota;
  • The candidate must have received an advanced STEM degree (a bachelor’s degree won’t do);
  • The candidate must have obtained his advanced degree from a US university;
  • A form of labor certification will be required;
  • Students who graduate with degrees in any of the biological sciences will not be eligible for a STEM visa (this could turn out to be a critical oversight);
  • Ph.D. holders will receive priority over master’s degree holders — master’s degree holders will only be considered for STEM visas when the pool of eligible PHDs has been exhausted, assuming the annual quota has not yet been reached by then.

Should You Apply for an EB Visa Now, or Wait for a STEM Visa Later?

Because the terms of the proposed STEM visa make it much easier to immigrate to the US, you might consider that this question answers itself. Even if you qualify for a STEM visa, however, it is not at all obvious that you should wait for one to become available. Some students would be better off applying for permanent residence under the EB program instead of waiting for a STEM visa.

Although chances are good that a STEM visa will eventually come to pass, it is unclear whether it will pass as a piecemeal remedy or as part of comprehensive immigration reform. If it is included in comprehensive immigration reform, it may have to slip by a divided Congress, which could take time.

If you are preparing to graduate with an advanced degree in a STEM field and you are considering applying for a green card, speak to an experienced immigration attorney.

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