H-1B at 20: How the 'tech worker visa' is remaking IT in America

The H-1B visa program turns 20 years old this month. Not everyone in IT is saying 'Best Wishes.'

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President Barack Obama, in his visit to India this month, assured the Indian government that he doesn't see outsourcing as a bad thing.

"I don't think you've heard me make outsourcing a bogeyman during the course of my visit," said Obama in India, adding that the two countries "are operating on some stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness."

The U.S. wants to expand its trade with India, selling products like aircraft, power-generation technology, and consumer goods into its vast market. The Indians want access to the U.S. IT market. And for that, they need visas.

The rise of the OPT extension

In the years leading up to the recession in 2008, demand for H-1B visas exceeded the annual supply of 85,000, some years by 60,000 or more.

The Bush administration, unable to persuade Congress to increase the visa cap, developed an alternative strategy: It extended the amount of time a foreign student with a science, technology, engineering or math degree can work for a private employer without a work visa, from 12 to 29 months. Critics called it an H-1B extension by other means.

Since that White House action in mid-2008, nearly 20,000 students have applied for what is called the Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. Given that demand for H-1B visas has been sluggish for the past two years, and that H-1B visa fees were increased this year, critics wonder whether foreign workers are using OPT extensions rather than H-1B visas to remain in the U.S.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency keeps track of every OPT request and the hiring company but typically doesn't distribute the information. It produced the list in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by an anonymous source, who subsequently made the list available to Computerworld. The list was verified by ICE.

The data shows which institutions are using the OPT extension and in what ways. [For more detail, see Non-visa foreign student work applications filed since mid-2008 for a searchable, sortable database of Optional Practical Training extension requests filed by U.S. employers.]

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Top OPT Schools

School Approved Canceled Denied Pending Requested Withdrawn Total
Stratford University 727 1 6 10 111 2 857
University of Bridgeport 533 6 6 4 15 564
University of Southern California 309 5 8 4 52 378
New Jersey Institute of Technology 309 6 12 7 30 3 367
Illinois Institute of Technology 294 2 5 3 23 1 328
San Jose State University 254 4 6 2 23 3 292
Northwestern Polytechnic University 211 6 2 8 40 267
Polytechnic Institute of New York University 196 3 2 7 17 225
Fairleigh Dickinson University 195 4 1 3 203
The University of Texas at Arlington 191 1 5 51 248
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Student and Exchange Visitor Program through a Freedom of Information Act request
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