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Paths to Permanent U.S. Residence for Scientists

For many foreign-born scientists, obtaining U.S. permanent residence is a critical step toward achieving their career objectives. U.S. employers are more willing to hire permanent residents than nonimmigrant visa holders. Also, many research grant programs are restricted to permanent residents and U.S. citizens. Scientists seeking permanent residence typically pursue one of five options:

The EB-1A: The most prestigious path, known as EB-1A, is for foreign nationals of “extraordinary ability”. It allows selfsponsorship and usually takes approximately six months to process. The major challenge in pursuing this option is the high standard for approval. Applicants must prove that they are within the top 1–2 percent of those in their field. Therefore, EB-1A is typically unsuitable for those in the early stages of their careers.

The EB-1B: Another relatively rapid path, known as EB-1B, is open to outstanding researchers and professors. It is designed primarily for those with tenure-track or permanent research positions whose prospective employers are willing to sponsor them. There are some qualifying non-tenure-track positions at universities and qualifying permanent positions at for-profit organizations. The major challenge here is the sponsorship requirement, because many academic institutions are unwilling to sponsor, and industry employers must meet substantial requirements for research position sponsorship.

National Interest Waiver (NIW): By far the most popular path for scientists is the NIW program. Since this option falls within the EB-2 category, where waiting periods for Indian and mainland Chinese nationals may exceed five years, many individuals choose to follow the EB-1 route concurrent with an NIW. The NIW is attractive not only because it permits self-sponsorship, but also because the standard for approval, showing “impact” in the field, is not nearly as stringent as the EB-1A standard. The NIW is suitable for postdoctoral researchers and early-career scientists with a reasonably strong profile in their field.

Schedule A Group II: A less common path for those with Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees is referred to as “Schedule A Group II”. This option does not permit self-sponsorship, and it requires outstanding, internationally recognized work within the year prior to filing. In practice, those who meet the requirements for this category often qualify for an NIW or an EB-1 visa. However, it may provide an opportunity for a highly-accomplished individual with a Bachelor’s degree.

PERM Labor Certification: Talented scientists with a more modest profile in their chosen field may also pursue permanent residence if their employer is willing to file a PERM labor certification on their behalf. This is accomplished through a series of steps demonstrating to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that there are no available and qualified U.S. workers to fill the position. The major challenges for science professionals and their employers in this category are the financial and administrative burdens to the employer and the length of time required to complete the process.

To learn more about each of these paths to permanent residence, including a detailed analysis of the relevant criteria, a summary of recent trends, and tips on how to strengthen your case, see www.immig-chicago.com/Pages/Scientist.


Attorney Elizabeth M. Walder, founder of Immigration Law Associates, P.C., has been helping foreign-born scientists achieve their immigration objectives for the past 20 years. Her firm handles the full range of family and employment-based immigration matters, and with science professionals on staff, has developed a unique niche in the biotech area. Forward your inquiries to ewalder@immig-chicago.com or visit www.immig-chicago.com.