Immigration Law

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As a new administration dawns in the United States, one campaign promise of particular interest to the global science community is immigration reform.

A recent study argues that the current U.S. process for obtaining permanent-resident status—a so-called green card—is particularly “inefficient” for international STEM doctoral students, and suggests that “a simplified path toward permanent residence” for these graduates could ultimately contribute to innovation and economic growth in the U.S. (Science, doi: 10.1126/science.abe7151). These findings echo some of the policy changes outlined in President Joe Biden’s immigration reform bill, which was submitted to U.S. Congress on 20 January.

Pick a pathway

There are a number of different immigration pathways for foreign-born STEM Ph.D. graduates from U.S. universities, which can make for a long, convoluted journey to residency. Graduates can temporarily stay in the U.S. without an employment-based visa by going through an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. However, this program only lasts up to three years—after which foreign Ph.D.s must undergo the difficult process of securing an employment-based visa.

The first visa pathway is through authorized permanent residency, where workers can apply for EB-1 visas for “extraordinary ability” or EB-2 visas for “exceptional ability.” Both processes can take as little as 6 to 12 months, or can take up to 5 to 10 years for workers from countries with a high number of applicants. The second pathway is through the employer-sponsored H-1B temporary work visa, which is available to workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher—giving no priority to worker qualifications or special recognition to Ph.D.s.

Visa trends and challenges

The visa process for foreign-born doctorates is quite complex and, according to this study, “there is little empirical understanding of which visas recent doctorates use in their first industry job, nor the sequencing and timing of visa progression.” In an effort to discover the visa pathways that foreign STEM graduates are taking, two researchers surveyed more than 1500 STEM graduates, from 39 leading research universities, as they transitioned into their first industry R&D jobs. Some 30% of the survey participants were foreign born. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provided additional context.

According to the team’s findings, two-thirds of Ph.D.s in their first job were sponsored for an H-1B visa—a visa that is also awarded to entry-level workers with bachelor’s degrees. About 10% of foreign Ph.D.s were self-sponsored for permanent residence or sponsored by their employers, and 16% stayed on OPT without sponsorship.

Interestingly, the researchers found that even though Ph.D. graduates can apply for permanent residency, STEM doctorates opt to use the H-1B visa to avoid delays and the unpredictability of processing green cards. Graduates often apply for this visa to extend their time from graduation and working on their student visa through the OPT program because the H-1B visa allows foreign workers to stay in the U.S. for three years with the possibility of a three-year extension. For graduates from China and India, the H-1B visa is practically essential, as they are subject to per-country quotas and often must wait several years to receive their green card.

One of the biggest worries regarding immigration reform, the researchers write, is how new policies could potentially impact U.S. citizens. To examine this, the researchers looked at their survey data comparing the starting salaries of U.S. citizen and foreign Ph.D.s. The survey revealed no significant difference in pay or hours worked for graduates in their first industry R&D job. According to the team, this indicates two things: that employing foreign Ph.D.s does not negatively impact the salaries of U.S. citizens, and that U.S.-trained international STEM Ph.D.s do not appear to be mistreated by employers.

Potential policy reform

According to the researchers, the study findings reveal that the current visa process for U.S.-trained foreign STEM graduates is extremely complex, relying heavily on the costly H-1B visa due to unreliable procedures and obstacles along the way. The authors argue that a clear path to permanent residency for these graduates will boost the economy through increased innovation and will level the playing field for startups that can’t afford visa sponsorship.

A new path forward for international Ph.D. graduates could be on the horizon, as the findings from the Science study align with the new immigration policies proposed by the Biden administration.