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 science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, grads to work in the U.S. for 29 months without a work visa was expanded with little attention 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 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.

He said his primary concern is "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 US 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, and one that leaves it wide open for abuse.

For instance, OPT employers aren't subject to the same rules governing 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 extensions applications now in the pipeline, according to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a third party who made the results available to Computerworld. U.S. officials confirmed the the accuracy of the documents found under the FOIA request.

The recent White House changes to OTP broaden out eligible tech fields by adding catch-all categories like "computer and information sciences, other," and "computer and information sciences, other." These may be designations for new types of programs that may be interdisciplinary.

OPT extensions for tech students

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 come 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 OPT include urban forestry, behavioral sciences, sustainability studies and archeology.

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

The administration acted when demand for H-1B visas was high and the visa cap was filling 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."

The problem with OPT may have been illustrated in a federal court complaint this month that alleged that a New Jersey IT services firm fired an employee who expressed reservations about the firm's policy of only hiring OPT students.

The company quickly settled with the government.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) this week called for an investigation of the OPT program, citing in part the Obama administration's move.

John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild, which challenged the government in court over the 2008 extension, was critical of the government's decision not to seek comment prior to adding the new rules this year.

Since the government got a court opinion that no one has standing to challenge the Buch administration's OPT extension, said Miano, it "has dispensed with the entire notice and comment procedure."

The schools that house the most students seeking to work in the U.S. under the OPT program is little changed from the last time Computerworld published a list in Oct. 2010.

Costa said it is "obvious to any reasonable person that the schools producing most of the OPT students are not prestigious research universities, which means that many of the OPT students across the country are not in fact the 'best and brightest.'"

While top students can come from lesser-known schools, "those will be the exception to the rule," said Costa.

Costa said the government should include some performance metrics in the OPT program, such as students grades and even a university's ranking.

"With youth unemployment being as high as it is, the Obama administration should be focusing on attracting the smartest immigrants that will add value and complement the workforce," said Costa.

"Adding workers with ordinary skills from vocational schools that few people have ever heard of - just because they hold STEM degrees - does nothing to further that goal," he added.

Sharon Machlis contributed to this story.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Read more about education/training in Computerworld's Education/Training Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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