Judges ask tough questions in H-1B case

Regarding student visa extension: If tech workers can't challenge rule, who can?

President Barack Obama's administration is defending a decision made by his predecessor to extend the amount of time foreign students can work in the U.S. without getting an H-1B visa. And the arguments in the legal fight, presented last month to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, touch on issues that have raged for years.

Appearing before the appellate court were attorneys for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as the Programmers Guild, one of a number of groups challenging the decision to extend the time students with technical degrees can work in the U.S. on a student visa. The change would allow them to work for as long as 29 months on a student visa, more than double the earlier one-year limit.

The court has posted a recording of the oral argument. Posting such recordings online appears to be a longstanding practice by this court.

Opponents of the change are appealing a lower court decision last year by a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey, Faith Hochberg. She rejected the lawsuit because she believed the tech workers didn't have standing to bring the case as they weren't directly injured by the White House rule change.

In court, the attorney representing the federal government, Samuel Go, said the student visa extension, called Optional Practical Training (OPT), is needed "to further [the] national interest, to improve the competitive standing of the United States in relation to other countries." The extension was also intended to make the program more attractive and to keep students from leaving the U.S. because of the H-1B cap.

Opponents argue that the visa extension has depressed wages, displaced workers and cost them job opportunities. John Miano, the founder of the Programmers Guild and an attorney and who argued the case in court, said the purpose of the rule was to "solve [an] alleged labor shortage" even though government findings "cannot establish a labor shortage." Instead, he spoke of industry demands for "cheap foreign labor," a need that "has been so great that industry has used up the quotas on H-1B visas faster and faster." Three judges heard the case -- Michael Fisher, Michael Chagares, and Paul Diamond -- and it's difficult to know from the voice recording who is asking what question. The judges pursued a number of lines of inquiry; one concerned the issue of standing.

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