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DHS outlines plans to reform visa processes to keep highly-skilled immigrant workers

U.S. visa

In the coming months, the Department of Homeland Security hopes to reform some administrative practices to ease the visa process for highly-skilled immigrants who want to enter, or remain in, the U.S. for work.

The department said in a Jan. 31 statement the moves were in support of President Obama’s efforts to meet 21st century national security and economic needs. DHS said the president supports legislative measure that would attract and retain immigrants who create jobs and boost competitiveness in the U.S., including creating a "Startup Visa," strengthening the H-1B program, and "stapling" green cards to the diplomas of certain foreign-born graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In the meantime, said DHS, the Obama administration is working to make improvements on existing programs.

As part of that effort, DHS announced a series of planned administrative reforms to its visa programs it hopes will attract and retain highly-skilled immigrants.  It didn’t say when the programs would be completed, however.

The department plans to expand eligibility for 17-month extension of optional practical training (OPT) for F-1 international students to include students with a prior degree in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Currently, it said, an F-1 student may only engage in OPT for 12 months. F-1 students who graduate in programs of study classified as STEM can get a 17-month extension of OPT as part of their F-1 status if the degree they were conferred is included on the DHS list of eligible STEM degree programs. DHS’ proposed change would expand eligibility for extension of OPT by including students with a STEM degree that is not the most recent degree the student has received. Furthermore, because of the dynamic nature of STEM related education and training, DHS said it will continue to review emerging fields for possible inclusion in the list of eligible STEM degree programs.

DHS also plans to allow for additional part-time study for spouses of F-1 students and expand the number of Designated School Officials (DSOs) at schools certified by DHS to enroll international students.

The regulatory reform would allow spouses of F-1 students to enroll in additional academic classes on a part-time basis while their spouse is pursuing full-time studies. Presently, under the current regulation, spouses may only take part-time vocational or recreational classes. Schools would also be given increased flexibility to determine the number of DSOs needed at their institution to meet both the administrative and guidance needs of students.

DHS also wants to provide work authorization for spouses of certain H-1B holders.

The proposed change to the current DHS regulation, said the agency, would allow some spouses of H-1B visa holders to legally work while their visa holder spouse waits for his or her adjustment of status application to be adjudicated. Specifically, it said, employment will be authorized for H-4 dependent spouses of principal H-1B visa holders who have begun the process of seeking lawful permanent resident status through employment after meeting a minimum period of H-1B status in the U.S. This effort will help retain talented professionals who are valued by U.S. employers and who seek to contribute to our economy.

The agency also wants to allow outstanding professors and researchers to present a broader scope of their academic achievement in support of their visa applications.

The proposed change to the current DHS regulation, it said, would increase the types of evidence that employers can submit to demonstrate that a professor or researcher is among the very best in their field. The change would allow "comparable evidence" beyond the agency’s specifically-articulated regulatory list. It will also harmonize the evidentiary standard for this category with the other exceptional ability immigrant visa categories.

It also wants to harmonize rules to allow E-3 visa holders from Australia and H-1B1 visa holders from Singapore and Chile to continue working with their current employer for up to 240 days while their petitions for extension of status are pending.

The change, it said, would treat E-3 and H-1B1 visa holders the same as other employment-based H-1B and L-1 visa holders by allowing them to continue employment with their current employer for up to 240 days from the expiration of their authorized period of stay, if a petition to extend their status has been timely filed.

DHS said it will also launch an “Entrepreneurs in Residence initiative” at the end of February to bring high-level representatives from the entrepreneurial community, academia, and federal government agencies together to discuss how to maximize current immigration laws' potential to attract foreign entrepreneurial talent. The Feb. 22  United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) information summit in Silicon Valley, CA, builds upon DHS's August announcement of efforts to promote startup enterprises and spur job creation, said DHS. The summit will focus on ensuring immigration pathways for foreign entrepreneurs are clear and consistent, and better reflect today's business realities, it said. The input gathered at the summit will inform the work of the Entrepreneurs in Residence tactical team, which will bring business experts in-house to work alongside USCIS staff for a period of approximately 90 days, it said. Following the summit, the tactical team will convene in Washington, DC to begin its work, said DHS.


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