Proposal Would Extend Work Authorization Period for International Students

by Chris Fuchs /  / Updated 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a proposal Monday to extend the work authorization period for international students with degrees at U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering, and math — a move that would affect the more than 60 percent of overseas students who come from Asia.

During the 2013 and 2014 academic year, nearly 63 percent of 886,052 international students studying in the U.S. came from Asian countries including China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam.

The current rule allows all international students enrolled in optional practical training, known as OPT, to remain in the U.S. for 12 months after graduating from accredited schools, and gives graduates with STEM degrees the option of extending that time by 17 months.

The proposed new rule, published Monday in the Federal Register, would add seven more months to the current extension, giving international students with STEM degrees a total of three years of employment authorization in the U.S. The extensions would apply only to students working for employers enrolled in the E-Verify employment eligibility verification program of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to DHS.

In addition, the new rule would improve oversight over the OPT program and would mandate that employers establish formal mentoring and training plans, as well as add wage and other protections for STEM OPT students and U.S. workers.

The proposal Monday comes 11 months after President Barack Obama addressed the nation about immigration and raised the issue of international students who come to the U.S. to study.

“Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us?” he asked last November. “Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America?”

On the same day Obama delivered his speech, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a memorandum directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and USCIS to “develop regulations for notice and comment to expand the degree programs eligible for OPT and extend the time period and use of OPT for foreign STEM students and graduates, consistent with law.”

For international students, the OPT work authorization period is an opportunity to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor their work visa, known as an H-1B. During the 2013 and 2014 academic year, nearly 63 percent of 886,052 international students studying in the U.S. came from Asian countries including China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam, according to the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that tracks such data.

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But for many, especially those from China who make up 31 percent of international students, the largest group among any country, the pressure begins to mount the moment they receive their OPT.

In some cases, U.S. employers are unwilling to file the paperwork for an H-1B visa, especially if they can avoid spending additional fees by hiring someone else who already has work authorization, according to the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper.

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Limits on H-1B visas pose another challenge. For the 2016 fiscal year, the USCIS has already reached its annual cap of 65,000 visas, according to its website. Excluded from that number are the first 20,000 petitions filed on behalf of applicants with master’s degrees or higher. H-1B workers petitioned for or employed at institutions of higher education, affiliated or related nonprofits, and government or nonprofit research organizations are also exempt from the cap.

The comment period on the proposed rule ends Nov. 18.

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