Senator seeks student visa program investigation

Grassley alleges abuses of OPT program Times Square bomber was on, and a federal lawsuit may have illustrated his point

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) says a program that allows foreign students to work here for up to 29 months may be hurting U.S. workers and risking national security.

Grassley said this student visa work program "creates competition for American students and workers," and may be undermining other work visa programs, specifically the H-1B program.

In his call for an investigation, Grassley pointed to Faisal Shahzad, the foreign national from Pakistan who was later convicted of attempting to bomb Times Square in 2010. More than a decade before that, he had worked on a student visa under the Optional Practical Training program (OPT).

"Using OPT simply to remain in the United States should be a concern to homeland security officials," wrote Grassley in a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He is asking to GAO, a government watchdog agency, to "fully investigate" the program.

The OPT program was limited to 12 months until the Bush administration, in 2008, extended it to 29 months for students with science, technology, engineering and math degrees -- the so-called STEM fields. Critics called the extension a back-door H-1B increase.

On May 11, the Obama administration expanded the number of areas eligible for OPT. It published a list (see PDF document). Some of the new programs added include computer and information sciences; computer programming, other; and computer software and media applications.

The OPT list already included "computer programming/programmer, general," and "computer science." There were about 90 additions, including areas such as "urban forestry," and "archeology." Grassley, a leading critic of work visa programs, said that "some may question whether these degree programs qualify as STEM" and meet the program requirement of only allowing OPT in "areas where there is a shortage of qualified, highly-skilled U.S. workers."

In total, the U.S. approved 430,515 OPT applications from 2006 and 2010, but that is for all OPT students, not just those eligible for the extension to 29 months.

Grassley's concern about abuse of the OPT program may have gotten help this week from the U.S. Dept. of Justice.

On May 22, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a lawsuit against Whiz International LLC, an IT staffing company in Jersey City, N.J., alleging that the company directed an employee "to prefer certain noncitizens" in hiring, specifically OPT students.

The employee who brought the complaint wasn't identified by the DOJ, but was hired as both a receptionist and a recruiter.

Less than a month after the receptionist took the job, she received an email from a superior at the company (whose name was blacked out in the complaint) "detailing his preference for individuals eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT)."

That unnamed superior said that he "preferred OPT candidates because they would be tied to the respondent (the company) and it would be difficult for them to obtain other employment."

This went on for several months until early August 2011, when the receptionist "expressed discomfort" to a superior "regarding the legality" of practices that excluded U.S. workers.

The employee who complained about the hiring practice was fired three weeks after raising this issue.

On May 30, just eight days after announcing the lawsuit, the Justice Dept. said it had reached a settlement with Whiz. The company agreed to pay nearly $22,000 to the woman who was fired. A $1,000 civil penalty was assessed as well.

"Retaliation against employees for speaking up against potential civil rights violations will never be tolerated," Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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