Obama expands OPT visa program for foreign students

Changes add new fields of study to program that that serves some 40,000 university students

WASHINGTON -- A program that allows foreign students who hold or are pursuing degrees in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to work in the U.S. for 29 months without work visas was quietly expanded last month by President Barack Obama's administration.

The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program had allowed students to work in the U.S. without a work visa for up to 12 months until 2008, when the George W. Bush administration increased the time limit to 29 months.

The Obama administration is maintaining the 29-month OPT term limit, but it has expanded the number of eligible fields of study by about 90, bringing the total to 400.

Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, said he isn't overly concerned that the number of eligible OPT courses of study was increased.

However, he did say he is concerned about "the fact that none of [the eligible fields] were determined based on demonstrated labor market shortages, and that there are no wage protections for OPT workers, which allows employers to undercut wages paid to U.S. workers."

"In a few of these fields, there may be shortages. But in many others, it's unlikely that we're anywhere near full employment," said Costa. "But the government hasn't taken the time to check."

Critics of the OPT extension see it as a back door H-1B visa increase -- a back door that is wide open for abuse.

For instance, OPT employers aren't subject to the same rules as organizations that hire H-1B workers, who must be paid the prevailing wage.

The U.S. has approved about 35,274 OPT extensions and denied only 613 since the program was started.

There are some 5,000 OPT extension applications now in the pipeline, according to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a third party, who made the documents available to Computerworld. U.S. officials confirmed the accuracy of the information in the documents found under the FOIA request.

The recent White House changes to OPT broaden the number of eligible tech fields by adding catch-all categories like "computer and information sciences, other." Such groupings could include new types of programs that may be interdisciplinary.

OPT extensions for tech students

Stratford University 1,345
University of Bridgeport 1,076
New Jersey Institute of Technology 650
Illinois Institute of Technology 643
University of Southern California 591
San Jose State University 565
Northwestern Polytechnic University 546
Polytechnic Institute of New York University 484
The University of Texas at Arlington 471
Silicon Valley University 449
Stevens Institute of Technology 440
Texas A&M University-Kingsville 402
This table shows 12 schools with most approvals for OPT extension requests for F-1 students with a science, technical, engineering or math primary major. The data comes from a spreadsheet of more than 40,000 requests that was acquired by a Computerworld source via a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequently analyzed by Computerworld.

Some of the new non-IT fields now eligible for the OPT program include urban forestry, behavioral sciences, sustainability studies and archeology.

The Bush administration's decision to extend the OPT eligibility period to 29 months for STEM students remains controversial.

The administration acted when demand for H-1B visas was high and the available visas were being snapped up quickly.

During a comment period prior to the implementation of the 2008 change, General Mills in 2008 wrote: "With the limited number of H-1B visas available under the statutory cap, General Mills has been placed in the untenable position of having to unnecessarily deal with gaps in work authorization with H-1B cases the company has filed that did not 'win' this year's (and last year's) random lottery."

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