Washington, DC: Students from abroad pursuing degrees in science, technology, education or mathematics will have the option of remaining in the U.S. for three years for practical training, according to a new rule announced on March 11 by the Department of Homeland Security. The law will extend the post-graduation work authorization period for international students studying STEM fields in the U.S as of May 10th this year. The rule will come as relief to thousands of international students whose futures in the U.S. were thrown into question after a federal judge invalidated a 2008 rule governing the program on procedural grounds.
The new rule addresses a program known as optional practical training, or OPT, which permits international students to work in the U.S. for 12 months after graduation. Under the 2008 rule, students studying STEM fields were eligible to apply for a 17-month OPT extension, for a total of 29 months of work authorization.
The new rule published will lengthen the extension from 17 to 24 months and enable students to apply for an extension at two different points of their academic career (after two different degree levels, e.g., a bachelor’s and a master’s), rather than only once. The ability of international graduates to work for up to three years at two different points in their academic careers while remaining on their F-1 student visas could allow them more time and flexibility to seek ways to stay in the U.S. legally, if that’s their choice.
The new rule also includes new reporting requirements for employers, students and university officials and, for the first time, requires employers to put in place formal training plans. “We’re viewing STEM OPT as a continuation of their training,” said Rachel Canty, the deputy director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which issued the rule. “It’s not just regular employment. You see this with the institution of this new training plan, which emphasizes that the student and employer have to sit down together to say how are we going to use this job, how are they going to take the skills they learned in school and apply it to a work environment.”
“The new rule for STEM OPT will allow international students with qualifying degrees to extend the time they participate in practical training, while at the same time strengthening oversight and adding new features to the program,” said Lou Farrell, director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, in a press statement.
Only students who have earned a degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP may apply for a STEM OPT extension. On Mar. 11, DHS launched a new Web site — studyinthestates.dhs.gov — that explains the OPT extension program for prospective foreign students. DHS estimates there are roughly 34,000 foreign graduates enrolled in OPT or OPT Extension programs. Critics of the program cite a private survey which reports there are more than 120,000 foreign graduates enrolled in these programs.
Employers participating in the program must enroll in the government’s E-Verify program. They must pay STEM OPT trainees wages similar to regular employees with similar backgrounds. Trainees must work a minimum of 20 hours a week and cannot replace a full-time, part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker. DHS said it has built in the latter safeguard to guard against adverse effects on U.S. workers.
The rule also includes new provisions intended to protect international students and American workers. It requires that hours, duties and compensation for STEM OPT participants be commensurate with terms and conditions for “similarly situated U.S. workers” and requires employers to attest that students hired through the program are not replacing Americans.
Herein lies the controversy surrounding the program. Proponents of OPT argue that the lure of post-graduation employment opportunities will help the U.S. attract international students and enable industry to identify top foreign talent, particularly in technical fields for which there are few qualified American job applicants. Opponents, however, argue that the program harms Americans by flooding tech fields with cheaper-to-hire foreign workers. (On the cheaper question, critics argue that policies that exempt some international students on F-1 visas, and their employers, from Social Security and Medicare taxes make them less expensive to hire than U.S. workers. International students generally begin paying Social Security and Medicare taxes after five years in the U.S.)