The Debate Surrounding OPT STEM Extension
April 23, 2015
Recently, there has been much debate over the issue of immigration, especially after President Obama’s Executive Order went into effect on November 20, 2014, and much of the debate has centered on parts of the order that impact the undocumented community. However, there are parts of the order affecting foreign students and their employment that demand more attention.
The executive action tasked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with developing recommendations on how to expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The OPT program issues temporary work visas for foreign students graduates on F-1 visas that were initially valid up to 12 months until 2008 when the George W. Bush administration increased the time limit to 29 months . The Obama administration maintained the 29-month OPT term limit, but expanded the number of eligible fields of study by about 90, bringing the total to 400, and allowed for a 17 month extension of the OPT for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates . Many applaud this measure because it allows foreign students more time to develop skills and utilize their degrees while working for U.S. companies. Advocates of the controversial program have said the country is experiencing an unnecessary “brain drain” because many foreign students who come to the U.S. and receive degrees in high-demand STEM fields leave soon after finishing their programs and don’t contribute to the economy .
In fact, the measure could affect a large share of foreign students – according to Brookings institute, about two thirds of foreign students on an F-1 visa are pursuing a bachelor’s or higher degree in STEM, business, management, and marketing, which is a figure noticeably higher than the 48% of all American students earning degrees in those fields.
While many foreign graduates of U.S. universities rely on H-1B employment-based visas to stay longer than is allowed under OPT, only 26,000 of the annually available 85,000 H-1B visas were granted to foreign students (based on analysis of 2010 FOIA data). Furthermore, the 7%-cap of any one country’s share of green cards contributes to create a huge backlog for Indian and Chinese nationals, who represent the two largest foreign-student populations.
However, it is no surprise that this new expansion has faced criticism. Critics of the program believe that there is insufficient oversight on the part of participating colleges. Currently, the program enables some 560,000 foreign students to obtain temporary work in their major area of study during and after completing academic programs here . Some believe that this fast-growing foreign-student work program is taking jobs from U.S. citizens. “Foreign students, sometimes aided by school officials, are currently abusing the Optional Practical Training program to acquire unauthorized employment in the United States,” said Senator Charles Grassley, citing a new report from the Government Accountability Office from March 2014 . However, most feel that the extension is well-intentioned overall, even if it was not well thought-out. The extension has yet to address several issues like the lack of regulation regarding wages and salary for OPT candidates and the absence of a path to citizenship for these foreign students .
Thus, President Obama should use his executive authority to reform the OPT program so that it retains qualified foreign students while protecting them and other workers. First, expansion of the OPT program should apply only to graduates from schools accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education or approved by the Secretary of Education. This would help ensure the quality of the STEM students and help protect them from non-accredited schools. Second, the President’s order should set wage guidelines, similar to those in the current H-1B visa program, for employers hiring graduates under OPT. This requirement would protect foreign workers from exploitation and mitigate adverse effects on the wages of native-born workers. Third, the OPT program should include a path to citizenship for those who want it. Thousands of foreign students are educated in the U.S. every year and then return to their native country with that knowledge and expertise, which is their right. However, if this program included a path to citizenship, it would allow the U.S. to retain some of the talented students it spent time, money and energy training which is great for the economy.
In the end, it seems that the least controversial aspects of the Executive Order is still the subject of great debate. Does it go too far or not far enough? Either way, when it comes to matters of immigration, Executive Action is a temporary, quick fix. Real and lasting change can only be found in the rule of law. Until then, its a waiting game.
 Allie Bidwell, “Obama’s Immigration Actions Brings Relief for College Students,” US News, November 21, 2014. Accessed at http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/11/21/obamas-immigration-actions-bring-relief-for-college-students.
 Kendric Ward, “Critics charge ‘alarming mismanagement’ at foreign-student job program,” Watchdog, March 11, 2014. Accessed at http://watchdog.org/131947/foreign-student-work/.
 Patrick Thibodeau, “Obama expands OPT visa program for foreign students,” Computerworld, June 4, 2012. Accessed at http://www.computerworld.com/article/2503903/it-skills-training/obama-expands-opt-visa-program-for-foreign-students.html.
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