DHS extends time foreign students can stay in U.S.

Stays extended from 12 months to 29 months

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has extended the time some foreign graduates of U.S. colleges cay stay in the country and work, earning the agency praise from Microsoft Corp. and other supporters of increasing the number of foreign worker visas available.

The DHS extended from 12 months to 29 months the length of time a graduating student in science and technology fields can stay in the U.S. without a worker visa. Microsoft and other supporters of a higher cap on H-1B immigrant worker visas have complained that the quota fills up before students graduate each year and that the 12-month period didn't give those students enough time to become part of the next year's H-1B crop.

The yearly cap on H-1B visas is 65,000, not including an additional 20,000 visas for graduate students at U.S. universities. In recent years, the cap has been filled within days or hours of applications being made available.

Microsoft today praised the DHS decision announced last Friday to extend the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The decision is "an important step toward ensuring that American companies can continue to hire many of the world's most talented students graduating from U.S. universities," Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's managing director, federal government affairs, said in a statement.

The extension of the program allows U.S. companies to recruit and retain the "best" science and tech students educated at the top U.S. universities, Microsoft added. "In the past, these students were often unable to remain in the United States for more than a year after completing their degrees because they could not obtain the necessary work visa, in spite of being offered gainful employment in highly innovative companies, due to the extreme shortage of H-1B visas," Krumholtz said.

The new DHS rule comes as a result of a congressional "failure" to pass immigration law reform, said Richard Herman, of Richard T. Herman & Associates, a Cleveland-based law firm focused on immigration law.

The extension is "a stop-gap measure and only highlights congressional impotence on leveraging high-skill immigration for America's economic security," Herman said. "Congress cannot continue to hamper U.S. technology innovation and competitiveness by imposing nonsensical laws that turn away the world's best and brightest."

But Jeffrey Oleander, a programmer and software engineer in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area, questioned the need for foreign students to stay in the U.S. longer.

"If they were truly outstanding ... then they ought to have a job lined up by a month after graduation, and be ready to go back and work for a year before abusing the visa program to come back," he wrote in an e-mail. "Stretching the limit for 'training,' the last word in the OPT acronym, also suggests they're not all that hot."

Some of the same companies that want to provide training for foreign students are reluctant to invest in short-term training for their U.S. workers, Oleander added.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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