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Senators Call for Expansion of Student OPT Program

Critical Update: It is now Official! The new rule to extend OPT to 29 months for qualified students became effective on April 8, 2008. For more details please refer to USCIS announcement, Q&A, and the official rule published in the Federal Register.

Here is the official list of STEM Designated Degree Programs

Senators Call for Expansion of Student OPT Program 11/09/2007

Senators Joe Lieberman, Patrick Leahy, Chuck Hagel and 16 of their colleagues sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to call for an extension of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program from 12 to 29 months. The letter, dated November 8, 2007, expressed concerns over the shortage of H-1B visas and urged the department to seek administrative reforms in order to keep those highly qualified international students in the U.S.

OPT is a temporary employment authorization issued by the USCIS. International students graduating from US universities can apply for OPT, which is currently valid for up to 12 months, to seek off-campus employment in a field directly related to their studies. Although students may opt to use part or all of their practical training before graduation, many prefer to save all 12 months until they have earned their degrees.

The problem is, without legal immigration reform, many talented students will have to leave the United States at the end of their OPT because of severe shortage of H-1B visas. In 2007, the demand for H1 visas was so high that USCIS received 133,000 applications - more than double the annual cap of 65,000 - on April 1, the first day applications were accepted. Additional 20,000 visas reserved for students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities were consumed within a few days too. As a result, students already in OPT but not lucky enough to win the H1 lottery will exhaust their 12 months before next April, meaning US employers will lose thousands of highly qualified future innovators to their foreign competitors.

Realizing a long-term solution, such as increasing H-1B quota through legislation, is uncertain to say the least, 19 Senators are tying to fix the problem temporarily:

" the interim, DHS has ample authority to effect a regulatory change augmenting the OPT period from 12 to 29 months. This extension would enable U.S. employers to retain at a critical juncture highly skilled foreign graduates for whom H-1 B visas are not immediately available."

U.S. universities would also benefit from an extended OPT program in terms of recruiting top students. Richard Levin, President of Yale University, explained:

"Yale and many other American universities attract talented students from every region of the world. Many of these students want to stay and have careers in the United States, but immigration rules often discourage that. I commend Senator Lieberman for urging Secretary Chertoff to expand opportunities for practical training after graduation. These students have a lot to offer - it's win-win for students and the U.S. economy."

The following Senators co-signed the letter:

  • Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee)
  • Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont, Judiciary Committee)
  • Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii, Commerce Committee)
  • John Kerry (D-Massachusett, Small Business Committee)
  • Charles Schumer (D-New York, Joint Economic Committee)
  • Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii)
  • Maria Cantwell (D-Washington)
  • Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana)
  • Bill Nelson (D-Florida)
  • Patty Murray (D-Washington)
  • Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee)
  • Robert Bennett (R-Utah)
  • Susan Collins (R-Maine)
  • John Cornyn (R-Texas)
  • Mike Crapo (R-Idaho)
  • Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska)
  • Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)
  • Gordon Smith (R-Oregon)
  • George Voinovich (R-Ohio)

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