Petition on OPT program ruling draws thousands of names

Court ruling creates uncertainty in STEM hiring program, prompts demands for action

White House
Credit: CC-SA-4.0/Cezary p/Wikipedia

Anxiety may be rising among STEM students working on student visas in the wake of a court ruling last week that threatens their futures in the U.S.

A petition at the White House "We the People" site urging the administration to quickly respond to the court decision attracted more than 53,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon. It appeared to be gaining new signatures by the hundreds with each passing hour and must reach 100,000 signatures by Sept. 13 to meet the threshhold for an official response.

The petition follows a U.S. District Court ruling last week that found the government erred by not seeking public comment prior to extending the 12-month Optional Practical Training Program (OPT) in 2008 to 29 months for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students.

The court ruling vacates the 17-month extension of the program, but Federal Judge Ellen Huvelle gave the government until Feb. 12, 2016, to address the problem.

There may be well more than 100,000 people now working on STEM extensions, according to government data.

The rapid response to the White House petition signatures may be a sign of how networked the international community is.

"The news spread pretty fast (about the court ruling) and we were fielding calls about it last week," said Elizabeth James, who directs the Office of International Services at North Carolina State University. That school, which has the state's largest STEM program, was welcoming 1,200 new international students last week at an orientation.

"We have taken the stance that right now there is really not a whole lot to panic about - nothing has immediately impacted the program," said James.

If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) doesn't bring the program into compliance by mid-February, people in it may be forced to return to their home countries if they cannot get another visa, such as an H-1B.

OPT allows people to work on a student visa. The government extended the program for STEM students in response to demand for the H-1B visa and the difficulty in getting that visa. Critics say the OPT program expansion is nothing more than a backdoor H-1B visa increase.

The court ruling followed a lawsuit by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which argued that the extension exposed Alliance members "to unfair competition by allowing aliens to work under rules in which they are inherently less expensive to employ."

The government is already responding. In a message widely distributed last week to people in the program, DHS said that it is "currently reviewing the ruling and will issue additional guidance in the coming weeks on how this ruling impacts our stakeholders."

Immigration attorneys believe that U.S. has enough time to remedy the problem. "Not to worry, this will be solved," tweeted, Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney.

William Coffman and Michele Frangella, attorneys at Mintz Levin, wrote that the judge's ruling "jeopardizes the current STEM OPT program," but that DHS "should have sufficient time to issue the rule again for notice and comment and finalization prior to February 12, 2016."

Even so, John Miano, the attorney who represented the Alliance in its lawsuit, said there may not be a simple fix for the problem. Miano said the court order requires "proper" notice and comment.

"In a case like this, DHS must show that it approached the problem with an open mind. If they just try to ram through another OPT extension in six months rather than analyze whether such an extension is even necessary, they are going to be set aside again," said Miano.

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