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eBriefing

Immigration Info Session for Advanced Degree Holders in STEM

Immigration Info Session for Advanced Degree Holders in STEM
Reported by
Kris Sunderic

Posted June 25, 2018

Kristifor Sunderic is an NYC based freelance science writer interested in the intersection of biotechnology and society.

Overview

Immigrants account for a significant share of advance degree holders in STEM fields in the United States and are crucial to the country’s continued edge in technological innovation. In fact, the National Science Foundation estimates that the current number of immigrant scientists and engineers in the U.S. workforce is 5.2 million, constituting almost 20% of the sector. But the avenues for foreign nationals not only to enter this country, but also to continue their work, may seem complicated. On April 10, 2018, the Columbia University Postdoctoral Society, INET NYC, Españoles Científicos en USA – NY, and the New York Academy of Sciences hosted an Immigration Info Session for Advanced Degree Holders in STEM. The event provided a unique opportunity for international Ph.D. students, postdocs, and other early-career researchers to learn about their options to obtain a work visa (H1B, O1) or permanent residency (including family-based, EB1, EB2, DV lottery).

Speaker and Panelists

Aviva Meerschwam, Esq., Fragomen (featured speaker)
Chamara Senevirathne, PhD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Dorottya Nagy-Szakal, MD, Columbia University Medical Center
Hourinaz Behesti, PhD, Rockefeller University
Nazish Abdullah, PhD, Weill Cornell Medical College
Sophie Colombo, PhD, Columbia University Medical Center
Wissam Hamou, PhD, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Meeting Report

Featured Speaker and Panel Discussion

Introduction

Immigrants account for a significant share of advanced degree holders in STEM fields in the US and are crucial to the country’s continued edge in technological innovation. In fact, the National Science Foundation estimates that the current number of immigrant scientists and engineers in the U.S. workforce is 5.2 million, constituting almost 20% of the sector. But the avenues for foreign nationals to not only enter this country, but also  continue their work, may seem complicated.  On April 10, 2018, the Columbia University Postdoctoral Society, INET NYC, Españoles Científicos en USA – NY, and the New York Academy of Sciences hosted an Immigration Info Session for Advanced Degree Holders in STEM. The event provided a unique opportunity for international Ph.D. students, postdocs, and other early-career researchers to learn about their options to obtain a work visa (H1B, O1) or permanent residency (including family-based, EB1, EB2, DV lottery).

Immigration Info Session

The session began with a presentation from Aviva Meerschwam, an attorney at Fragomen, the world’s largest global immigration law firm. Meerschwam, an immigrant from the Netherlands who first entered the U.S. on a student visa, began by defining some the most common visas for STEM workers and their requirements, all of which are temporary and require the holder to maintain a residence abroad. “I’m always part of the international community, and having worked in the field now for almost ten years, I’m so glad I’m able to help immigrants,” said Meerschwam.

The F-1 is a student visa available to foreign nationals entering the U.S. for academic studies. It is valid only for the “duration of status,” or the length of the academic program the holder is enrolled in. The holder may extend their stay 12 months for Optional Practical Training (OPT) if enrolled in a post-graduation training program related to their field of study. A 24-month STEM extension is available for employers with e-Verify. Meerschwam noted that changing jobs to an employer without e-Verify will violate visa status or result in travel restrictions.

The J-1 visa is for foreign nationals who are part of an approved exchange program to study or conduct research in their field. Though mainly used by interns and trainees, the J-1 also works for visiting professors and research scholars. Some holders must return to their home country and wait for two years before seeking another visa depending on a predefined “skills list” or whether their exchange program receives government funding. The skills list varies by country of origin but often includes technical fields such as engineering and applied sciences as well as art and humanities. The two-year residency requirement can be waived under certain circumstances. For example, if there is credible fear of persecution based on race, religion, or political opinion in the home country, if the stay would cause significant hardship for the applicant’s spouse or child, or (and most often the case) there is no objection statement from the home country.

The H1B visa is for professionals working in a specialty occupation. It grants a six-year stay but can be extended if an employer begins the process for seeking permanent residence. There is a 65,000 annual cap on H1B visas and an additional 20,000 for Master’s degree holders, but certain employers are exempt from the quota, including: universities, non-profit research organizations, governmental research organizations, and educational non-profits. It is possible to change or adjust your status and there are generally no travel restrictions. Expedited processing is available for an additional fee of $1,225.

The O-1 visa is for persons of “extraordinary ability” in the sciences, education, arts, business, or athletics. Applicants for the O-1 must demonstrate that they are one of a small percentage in the top of their field and have sustained national or international acclaim and recognition for their achievements. This makes the O-1 a tougher choice for younger, early-career scientists. Because the agents handling O-1 cases are not scientists, their interpretation of acclaim and recognition may be subjective. But the applicant must meet a few criteria, usually in the form of publications and citations, original contributions, membership in associations, and awards among others.

The green card is for foreign nationals seeking permanent residence. The availability of immigrant visas changes every month by the State Department according to country of birth, category, filing date, and overall demand. No more than 7% of visas can be allocated to people born in any one country, which creates a backlog for countries with high visa demand like China and India. Green cards are limited to  675,000 per year, 480,000 of which are family-based; of the remainder, 140,000 are employment-based and 50,000 are lottery-based. Employment-based green cards require labor certification filed with the Labor Department, an I-140 immigrant worker petition filed by the employer, and an adjustment of status application filed by the foreign national.

There are three different categories for employment-based H1B visas. The EB1  is for three different types of priority workers: persons of extraordinary ability, preferably sponsored by an employer; professors and teachers, who must be internationally recognized and sponsored for a tenure track position; and multinational executives and managers, who must do business in at least two countries and work in a managerial capacity in the US. The EB2 is for advanced degree holders and persons of exceptional ability in science, art, or business. Labor certification is required but can be waived if the applicant’s employment is in the national interest and beneficial to the United States. Professionals and skilled workers use the most common category, the EB3. Labor certification is required in all cases, but because the requirements have not changed with evolving recruiting methods, certifications can be structured to beat the labor market test.

The current administration has sought to limit immigration to the United States with mixed results. Federal courts suspended two executive orders banning entry of foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries. The third and most recent order has been partially upheld pending a Supreme Court decision in June. The orders demonstrate the limits of executive power and the action of checks and balances. Though recent changes are not drastic, policy can be guided unilaterally. The “Buy American and Hire American” executive order of April 18, 2017, directs agents adjudicating immigration cases to consider the spirit of the order when processing visas. And because evaluations are somewhat subjective, visas may be denied for subjective reasons. Furthermore, every petition for a visa extension must now be readjudicated on its own merit where they were previously deferred to prior adjudications for approval. This has led to a significant increase in Requests for Evidence, making sponsorship more costly for employers. At consulates, people of certain backgrounds are flagged and asked to provide additional information.

Panel of Successful Visa and Green Card Recipients

The session concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Andras Varadi, of Columbia University, and featuring international STEM professionals who successfully transitioned to work visas or Green Cards. The panelists included: Chamara Senevirathne, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Dorottya Nagy-Szakal, of Columbia University Medical Center; Hourinaz Behesti, of Rockefeller University; Nazish Abdullah, of Weill Cornell Medical College; Sophie Colombo, of Columbia University Medical Center; and Wissam Hamou, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

They shared advice based on their varied experiences gaining approval to work in the United States. As important as networking is domestically, it’s especially important for foreign nationals seeking permanent residence, as new connections can provide testimonials and references that bolster applications. They can come from people you’ve met at conferences or who have cited your work, but the more well known the better. Having letters from scientists abroad, as opposed to those who work closely with you, supports applicants’ international standing. “You have to work for it and look for what they need,” says Nagy-Szakal. “It’s important to find some uniqueness. I know we’re all researchers and we’re all looking for something unique, but if you can show that your research is needed in the United States, that’s the holy grail.” This can also be useful for transferring visa status, for example, from a position in academia to the private sector.

As mentioned earlier, Optional Practical Training must be related to the applicant’s field of study, but there are cases of people doing something quite different for their OPT. Fortunately, with a recommendation from the applicant’s Designated School Official (DSO), getting OPT is relatively easy and rarely scrutinized. But the applicant should be prepared to argue that the training is directly related to their study. The same applies to green card applicants who switch jobs. You can port your green card application to another employment offer provided that the new job is substantially comparable, but USCIS has been very lenient regarding this. “I’ve seen many people that have degrees in one field and then do something quite different. It’s just not been scrutinized,” said Meerschwam.

Completing applications can be daunting and the panelists recommend that potential applicants research good immigration lawyers. The cost of services ranges from $1,200 to $7,000 or more depending on the work done, and some lawyers do more than others. For example, Meerschwam’s firm Fragomen offers to draft detailed testimonial letters and gather evidence in support of their clients. And while processing can be rapid after paying the premium processing fee, most applicants should expect to wait over a year for their petitions to be approved. For all of the valid reasons to be concerned about immigration in the current political climate, including the fact that even small policy changes impact immigrants’ lives, ample preparation and foresight can help international scientists navigate the obstacles to working and studying in the United States.

Speaker Presentation and Panel Discussion

Navigating the U.S. Immigration System for Advanced Science Degree Holders


Aviva Meerschwam (Fragomen)

Panel Discussion


Moderator: Andras Varadi (Columbia University)

Further Readings

Websites

Official website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Travel.state.gov.

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