The Potential for Advanced STEM Degree Visas

With all of the political debates surrounding Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), one thing that both political parties have agreed on is the need to help meet the scientific and technological demands of the US economy through immigration. With a perceived inadequate amount of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workers in the United States, American politicians have realized the need to keep foreign nationals who receive an advanced degree in a STEM field from a US institution of higher education in the country to benefit from their training and experience. The general number agreed upon for future STEM legislation is 55,000 visas annually for eligible advanced degree STEM graduates from US universities.

For an overview of previously proposed STEM legislation for an idea of what a potential STEM act will entail, please click here.

STEM Visas – Should you wait to apply?

As support for a specific STEM visa grows, it is important to keep certain things in mind when evaluating one’s current immigration options. Many potential immigrants have been asking themselves “Should I wait until a STEM act is passed before applying for a green card?” There are many things to consider when answering that question which may affect a foreign national’s ultimate decision.

While proposed STEM legislation would streamline the immigration process for qualifying foreign nationals, there are still some steps put in place that will be similar to other visa categories such as EB-2 or EB-3. The phrase most associated with STEM reform –“staple a green card to a diploma”- is a bit misleading. For foreign nationals who have graduated with advanced degrees from US universities the process will be simpler, but graduating alone is not enough to receive a green card. A form of labor certification is still necessary with required job postings on State Workforce Agencies’ website. These posting must be undertaken by potential employers and thus employer sponsorship is still a requirement for a STEM visa. A STEM visa category will make more visa numbers available to specific highly trained foreign nationals, thereby making it easier to immigrate, but it will not entirely do away with labor certification or employment requirements of other similar categories.

Biological Sciences Degrees do not count

While STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, the “Science” portion of the acronym is generally understood to not allow for special immigration benefits to be offered to graduates from the field of Biological Sciences. This has not always been the case, but with recent trends in employment opportunities for PhD and MA graduates in the Biosciences field, it is assumed that any STEM legislation will omit biosciences from STEM visas. It may be possible, as has been suggested by Senator Chuck Schumer of NY, to allow biosciences degrees to qualify for STEM visas at some point in the future, but for now biological, biotech, and biomedical science degrees are not covered in proposed STEM visa programs. Until market demand can match the large pool of qualified applicants in the biosciences field, STEM reform will not benefit this area.

Foreign Degrees do not count

Proposed STEM visa numbers are only available to foreign nationals who have graduated from United States institutions of higher education with advanced degrees in specific STEM fields. If a would-be immigrant graduated with an advanced degree from a foreign university, this degree will not qualify him/her for a STEM visa. In such a situation, an advanced degree holder would still be eligible for an EB-1 or EB-2 classification, depending on the stature of his/her achievements.

A large part of the political support for STEM degrees is the perception that the US is investing in the education of foreign nationals and then sending them away to compete with the US’s economic and national scientific interests by seeking employment abroad. This is why advanced STEM degree holders must have received the qualifying degree from a US university or other institution of higher education.

PhD holders receive priority over MA holders

As immigration reform related to STEM visas stands now, PhD holders would receive priority over terminal MA degree holders. Only visa numbers not used by STEM PhD holders would be available to STEM MA holders. For practical purposes it would be surprising if foreign born PhD graduates from US universities had a demand so high that no visa numbers would be left for MA degree graduates. However, this aspect of proposed STEM legislation is important to remember when considering plans for future immigration. If a foreign national has graduated from an MA program without continuing to pursue a PhD, he/she would qualify (in a hypothetical situation where STEM reform took place) for both EB-2 and STEM visas. However, if demand for STEM visas was exceptionally high from PhD holders in a given year his/her visa application would not have priority due to the level of education obtained.


The likelihood of STEM visas becoming a reality is very high. For the time being, however, the approval of a STEM act is dependent upon the approval of general CIR. Part of the reason Representative Lamar Smith of Texas’ STEM Act did not pass last year was -among other things- the desire to pass overarching reform instead of piecemeal reform. So, despite an approaching consensus on what a STEM bill should look like, this aspect will still be part of a larger bill which will take even more time to pass. For foreign nationals considering immigrating to the US who have graduated with an advanced STEM degree it may be beneficial to pursue the visa categories available to him/her now rather than wait for a potential new visa category.

We have not yet seen what a STEM act will look like once enacted, but indications of proposed bills suggest that the requirements for an eligible foreign national to obtain a STEM visa seem simpler than the EB-1 category and the NIW category. However, a job offer and labor certification is still required so the speed of the process may not be as fast as expected. Many Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars who cannot get the sponsorship from a U.S. employer are not qualified for a STEM visa.

For foreign nationals who qualify for the EB-2 visa category but not the EB-1 category due to their holding an advanced STEM degree from a US university, the issue of a priority date should be weighed considerably in deciding whether to hold off on applying for available immigration benefits. As a worst case example, if a potential applicant decides to wait until less stringent STEM immigration laws are passed but eventually finds himself/herself unable to receive a STEM visa (such as an MA degree holder in a year when available visa numbers have been used by PhD applicants) the time missed waiting for reform may have been better spent applying for other categories with an earlier priority date. Each person’s qualifications and eligibility is different, so it is advised that potential immigrants consult with an experience attorney with knowledge of education and employment based immigration.

For more information on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, please click on one of the following topics below: