DHS Moves to Expand Program Incentivizing Hiring Foreign Students

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is proposing an expansion to a program that allows foreign students with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees to work in the U.S.

The changes were first announced in conjunction with President Obama’s executive actions on immigration reform in November and aims to increase the amount of time under the Optional Practical Training program that foreign students may work in the U.S.

The OPT program allows foreign students in certain fields to extend their stay in the U.S. by working to attain “practical training.” The rule up for consideration, would allow hundreds of thousands of foreigners in the STEM fields to work in the U.S. via the OPT program for three years, expanding the program from the current 29 months to 36 months.

Critics of the proposal point out that the students are likely to end up being less expensive than American workers and increase the already stiff competition for STEM jobs among Americans with STEM degrees looking for work or Americans with such degrees employed in non-STEM fields.

Center for Immigration Studies expert David North highlights, for example, that since DHS defines these foreign workers under this program as “students” they are largely not required to pay social security and Medicare taxes.

“In the current document, DHS proposes to extend the additional 17 months for STEM workers to 24 months; thus from a total period of 29 months to 36 months, about a 20 percent increase. If the bonus given to employers for hiring a STEM graduate is worth $10,000 under the old rules, it is now worth $12,000, and is that much more likely to cause an employer to hire a former F-1 student than a green card or citizen graduate,” North wrote in an analysis of the rule.

Advocates for the extension say allowing foreign graduates to work in their fields of study in the U.S. will aid American employers and allow foreign students to use their knowledge in the U.S.

“Our nation will benefit from keeping international students here, educated in U.S. colleges and universities here while they receive additional training, rather than sending them out of the country,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña said in a statement Friday. “At the same time, U.S. employers will benefit from the increased ability to rely on the skills acquired by U.S. educated-STEM students, as well as their knowledge of markets in their home countries.”

This summer, before the rule was published, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley urged DHS to reconsider its plans to expand the program given the program’s propensity for abuse.

“Putting aside the legality of the OPT program, which I have questioned, I am greatly troubled by the proposal to lengthen to a full two years the OPT-STEM extension period,” Grassley wrote on a letter to DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson in June. “Doing that would authorize foreign STEM students to remain working in the United States after graduation, potentially for a total of up to six years, completely outside of the nonimmigrant employment-based visa programs, and their associated worker protections, established by Congress.”

In conjunction with the rule, DHS says it is increasing oversight of the program and restricting participation to foreign nationals with degrees from accredited schools employed by businesses enrolled in E-Verify.

Still the rule change is occurring against a backdrop of recent allegations that certain tech companies have been cutting costs by hiring foreign workers instead of Americans or even replacing American employees with cheaper foreign workers.

DHS posted the proposed rule in the Federal Register Monday. While it has a comment period that ends on November 18, 2015, the Obama administration is pushing to have the final rule in place before February 2013.


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