On Jan. 21, 2022, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) updated the USCIS Policy Manual with additional guidance on how USCIS evaluates eligibility for the O-1A “extraordinary ability” visa category. O-1A visas are reserved for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics.

According to a recent White House press release, the O-1A policy update is a part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to “remove barriers to legal immigration” and “advance predictability and clarity for pathways for international STEM scholars, students, researchers, and experts to contribute to innovation and job creation efforts across America.” To this end, the USCIS’ latest O-1A policy update clarifies how the agency evaluates evidence submitted in support of an O-1A petition. Specifically, USCIS provides examples of evidence that may satisfy the O-1A evidentiary criteria, with a focus on O-1 petitions for individuals showcasing extraordinary ability within STEM fields.

Along with providing examples of evidence that may satisfy the O-1A criteria, USCIS’ policy update includes a discussion of considerations relevant to evaluating such evidence, with a focus on the highly technical nature of STEM fields and the complexity of the evidence often submitted. For example, the new guidance includes a discussion on considerations that can help determine whether a Ph.D. scholarship amounts to a nationally or internationally recognized award for excellence within the field of endeavor.

The update also emphasizes USCIS’ pre-existing policy of allowing petitioners to submit evidence that is of comparable significance in situations where a particular O-1A criterion does not readily apply to a specific occupation. To provide further clarification, USCIS’ update includes examples of comparable evidence that may be submitted in support of petitions for beneficiaries working in STEM fields.

Though this policy update is intended to “advance predictability and clarity” in the adjudication of STEM-related O-1A petitions, much will depend on how USCIS’ adjudicating officers apply the new policy update in practice.