How Immigration Policy Changes Can Affect Biopharma Hiring

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In January 2022, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services clarified the requirements of two programs that enable foreign-born STEM employees to work in the United States. Since then, the number of visas and green cards awarded has jumped, ScienceInsider recently reported. But experts told BioSpace that much more remains to be done to make the immigration process smoother for STEM workers, including those in the life sciences.

The changes were made to two separate mechanisms to enable foreign-born individuals to hold U.S. jobs: O-1A visas and EB-2 national interest waivers. O-1A visas are given to people of “extraordinary ability” in various fields; the January 2022 guidance focused particularly on clarifying the evidence needed to qualify based on accomplishments in STEM. EB-2 national interest waivers similarly allow people with advanced degrees who have “exceptional ability” to get a green card, officially known as a permanent resident card, without having a job offer and an employer petition. As with the O-1A guidance, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) clarified how people in STEM fields can qualify for the waiver.  

The number of awarded O-1A visas increased 30% in 2022 after the policy change while the number of green cards awarded to STEM professionals through EB-2 waivers increased by 55%. In 2023, numbers of both types of documents remained about the same as 2022 levels.

Eda Zullo, head of the pharmaceutical analytics practice at recruitment agency Smith Hanley Associates, wrote in an email to BioSpace that she hoped the policy change would help with hiring international candidates. “Anything that will help candidates get a green card faster” is a welcome development, Zullo wrote.

The 2022 policy guidances did not change preexisting caps on how many people can be admitted to the U.S. under these or other programs, however. Under federal law, only 140,000 people per year can receive employment-based permanent residency, and only 14,700 of those people can come from any single country.

Experts told BioSpace that overall, the U.S. immigration process remains formidable for many talented STEM professionals from abroad who could potentially contribute to biopharma and other industries.

Sandra Feist, founding attorney at Feist Law & Advocacy, said that despite the reported increase in O-1A and EB-2 issuances, the immigration process has not become any easier for her firm’s clients.

“There have always been many STEM professionals seeking green cards and work visas to pursue their careers in the United States,” Feist wrote in an email to BioSpace. “While the data you cited is interesting, we have seen only increasing challenges with our O-1 and EB-1 and [National Interest Waiver] filings in recent years, including frivolous Requests for Additional Evidence and unreasonable denials.”

Hurdles Remain

Visas are often stepping stones for people looking to get green cards. Unlike many visa types, which tie legal permission to remain in the U.S. to a particular job or educational program, permanent residency affords nearly all the same rights as citizenship. More than 270,000 people became lawful permanent residents in 2022 based on their professional qualifications, according to the Office of Homeland Security Statistics, up from just over 193,000 people in 2021.

About 82% of people who became permanent residents based on employment preferences in 2022 had visas first. A plurality of those people—40.4%—were people with professional degrees or exceptional ability, and 95% of people with professional degrees or exceptional ability converted to green cards from visas.

However, obtaining a visa isn’t as straightforward as simply applying. Some people go through long legal processes first. Feist cited cases of a professor of animal science losing their position after having their O-1 application denied and an NIH-funded cancer researcher being asked for more evidence to support their EB-1 application.

The hurdles such workers encounter make the U.S. a less attractive destination, she suggested. “Beyond simply aiming to support STEM professionals, the Biden Administration needs to step back and take a larger look at how its adjudications trends are impacting [visa application] filings by the top global talent considering a career in the United States,” Feist wrote.

Feist also noted that the O-1A visa is “more discretionary and complex and expensive” than the H-1B visa, which she called “the most obvious visa for a STEM professional.” Both types of visa currently have a base fee of $460, and employers that sponsor H-1Bs may have additional filing fees. But legal costs tend to be higher for O-1 visas, Feist explained.

H-1B visas involve less documentation than O-1 visas, which require at least three pieces of evidence such as nationally or internationally recognized awards, proof of membership in professional associations or scholarly publications. For this reason, O-1 visas take “several months to file on average,” Feist said, and require specialized expertise, and USCIS requests for additional evidence can make the process longer and costlier. In comparison, an H-1B application can be filed within three weeks, Feist said.

However, U.S. immigration law limits how many H-1B visas are issued every year. The official cap is 65,000 per year, but exceptions for people with at least a master’s degree from an American university, employees of American universities and employees of nonprofit or government research organizations bring the total to around 85,000. Registrants are selected randomly from an electronic system to be eligible to apply, and for the most recent fiscal year, 188,400 people were selected from about 759,000 eligible registrations.

In addition to the challenge posed by caps, changes have recently been proposed to the H-1B process that critics say may make it even harder to hire workers. Among the potential changes is a requirement that candidates for what are known as “specialty occupations” hold a specialized degree required by their job.

Trawling the International-Student Talent Pool

Many visa applicants, especially for H-1B, are international students from U.S. higher education institutions. International students received about 5% of bachelor’s degrees, 13% of master’s degrees and 28% of research-based doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2022.

Research shows that international students in STEM are more likely to want to stay in the U.S. compared to those in other fields, and that students who intend to stay in the U.S. are more likely to seek jobs in industry than those who choose to return to their home countries.

“International students are key to U.S. growth,” Zullo said.

Interstride, an online platform for international students seeking career support at all degree levels, has seen an increase in people using the platform to find STEM jobs in recent years, according to partnerships manager Judy Chen. In part, she said, that’s because more people on F-1 student visas are taking advantage of a feature of the visa that allows them to temporarily hold positions providing practical training. “We’re seeing numbers rising closer to pre-pandemic levels” for people pursuing STEM employment, she told BioSpace.

Most international students who want to remain in the U.S. plan to pursue H-1B visas, Chen noted. But the legal cap makes this a challenge, and many students aren’t aware of alternatives.

“If we want to truly encourage STEM professionals to come to the United States for studies and a career, we need to eliminate the unpredictability of a random H-1B lottery,” Feist wrote.

Despite the challenges, Feist said that throughout her time working in immigration law, companies have been receptive to working with employees going through the immigration process. “World-class biomedical companies rely heavily on having access to the global ‘best and brightest’ in order to continue driving innovation and progress.”

Nadia Bey is a freelance writer from North Carolina. Her work and contact information is available at nadiabey.com.

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