Nearly 35,000 comment on new federal visa rule

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The Optional Practical Training program stirs up a response

The U.S. received nearly 35,000 comments on its plan to extend the Optional Training Program (OPT) for STEM students from 29 months to 36 months. The deadline for comments was this week.

By increasing the length of time someone can work on a student visa, the U.S. is trying to give these students more time to get an H-1B visa. Demand for H-1B visas, especially from IT offshore outsourcing firms, is making it harder for students who graduate from U.S. schools to get a work visa.

The majority of comments received by the U.S. support extending the program, which is not surprising. If the government effort fails, many STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students may be forced to leave the U.S. The government is acting under a U.S. court order to bring the program into compliance with the law.

As of September, over 34,000 students were in the United States on a STEM OPT extension, according to the U.S.

The comments, some anonymous, were collected over the last month. Technically, the U.S. says it has received about 50,000 comments, but it has only posted 35,000 and moderates before posting. The responses define the sharp divide on this issue.

Wrote one IT worker in opposition: "I have lost three jobs to foreign workers over the past 15 years and I am about to lose another. My income has dropped to one quarter of what it was back in 2001."

On the other side, a Ph.D student wrote: "America has put much efforts and money in training the STEM students from all around the world for years to get them qualified for the positions in industry or academia. Without this expanding policy, the chance is little for STEM students to win the H1B" lottery within one year. It would be a "big loss" for these students to leave America, he wrote.

There is little doubt that the President Barack Obama's administration wants to extend the program. "The rule will benefit the U.S. educational system by helping ensure that the nation's colleges and universities remain globally competitive in attracting international students in STEM fields," said the U.S., in its description of the proposed changes.

The question is whether this comment collection meets the obligations imposed in August by a federal court. That court had ruled that government erred by not seeking public comment in 2008, when it originally extended the OPT program from 12 months to 29 months for STEM students. The court gave the U.S. until Feb. 12 to fix the program or risk giving the students 60 days to return home.

The U.S., in response, increased the scope of the program. It took the original STEM OPT extension of 17 months and made it 24 months. That means the overall amount of time someone can work on a student visa has been will be extended from 29 months to 36 months.

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