Bush Administration: Tech workers won't be hurt by visa extension

It's not a back-door H-1B increase, government argues

In papers filed in court Monday, the Bush administration says its student visa extension won't hurt U.S. tech workers and argues that it's not a backdoor H-1B increase.

The administration was responding to a lawsuit filed in May by the Immigration Reform Institute, The Programmers Guild and other groups challenging the extension of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) provision from one year to 29 months. That provision spells out the amount of time a foreign student can work in the U.S. before getting an H-1B visa.

The case is being heard in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J., with opponents seeking an injunction to block the student visa extension. The change to the OPT was put in place earlier this year through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The extension has drawn attention from major organizations on both sides of the issue. The AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the U.S., has said the extension for student workers could lower wages for U.S. tech workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has countered that foreign talent is needed to maintain competitiveness.

The Bush administration has argued that opponents of the change, a group that includes tech workers who say they are either unemployed or underemployed, have no legal standing to challenge the visa extension. The government argues that the change "will not cause plaintiffs to be unemployed or underemployed in the future."

The government expects about 12,000 foreign students to seek a visa extension, and that figure represents "barely 0.2% of the 5.5 million" engineering and computer jobs in the U.S. Opponents argue that growth in the H-1B visa program has had a huge impact on job opportunities for U.S. workers, and they contend that between 1999 and 2005 employment in computer fields grew by 332,000 jobs, while over the same period the U.S. approved 330,000 H-1B visas. Engineering employment declined by 123,900 jobs during that period.

The government argued that the extension doesn't create more H-1B visas and instead simply reduces some of the hardship imposed by the H-1B visa cap.

That cap is currently set at 85,000, a figure that includes 20,000 visas set aside for advanced degree holders. The number of visa applications has been nearly double the cap limit in recent years, a trend the government said creates a problem for students who may have to wait longer than a year for an H-1B visa.

"The extension of time permitted in this rule simply spares [foreign students] the hardship of leaving the country to change their status."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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