Many would argue that currently there is a serious need for federal immigration reform. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign-student graduates on F-1 visas to lawfully work, is one area that is in need of immediate attention. This program offers important employment and residency opportunities to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students.
President Obama could minimize these problems through establishing minimum wage requirements and requiring OPT programs to only accept graduates of accredited universities. In addition to this, countries that supply the largest amount of STEM students, such as India and China, should have their immigration caps lifted. Finally, there should be a clearly established path for foreign students to obtain permanent resident status. As a result, successful OPT program updates and immigration reform will help the U.S. remain educationally competitive through helping qualified foreign graduates obtain long term employment and lawfully immigrate into the U.S.
How the U.S. Can Retain STEM Foreign Students?
Despite the political gridlock blocking expanded relief for undocumented immigrants, other executive immigration actions are still moving forward. For example, spouses of H-1B workers can apply for employment authorization starting in May of 2015. The next promising executive action involves improving the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This program is very beneficial for helping qualified individuals obtain lawful employment. See if you qualify for OPT here:
Expansion of OPT Program
A November 2014 executive action tasked the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with developing recommendations for expanding the current OPT program. This unique program allows foreign-student graduates on F-1 visas to work full time in the United States for up to 12 months after receiving their U.S. degrees. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degree holders qualify for 29 months. While number of OPT workers authorized per year are not limited, the program still requires the graduate school and DHS approval. Learn more about the expanded OPT program and benefits here:
Unaccredited Schools Taking Advantage of Foreign Born STEM Students
It is an unfortunate fact that some unethical schools take advantage of both STEM students and the OPT program. For example, many STEM master’s degree graduates from Southern India have been caught using the F-1 visa system for employment through for-profit, unaccredited schools.
Officials have found that Hyderabad, India is the number-one source of STEM foreign students into the U.S. However, the most popular schools with these students were both recently shut down for visa fraud (Tri-Valley University and University of Northern Virginia). ICE officials also recently raided three schools in Los Angeles that were using a similar fraud scheme. Unaccredited schools offering untrustworthy master’s degrees need to be closely monitored since they offer longer work authorization and the ability to qualify for the additional H-1B visa. To read about incidents like these review our article, What’s Left for UNVA?
Protecting OPT Workers
In addition to some universities, certain employers are also exploiting foreign-student graduates by paying them limited wages while they wait for an employment-based visa such as the H-1B. This unethical loophole is possible since the OPT program has no minimum wage requirements. Once a foreign graduate obtains an H-1B visa, it may take up to 10 years or longer for employer-sponsored permanent residency.
Possible Revisions to the U.S. OPT Program
Ideally, President Obama could use his executive authority to enact (or simply advocate more strongly) reform the OPT program through retaining and protecting qualified foreign students. Previously, there were three proposed revisions and expansions. They include setting wage guidelines, revising the OPT program to only include graduates of accredited universities and creating a clear path for foreign students to obtain permanent resident status.
Encouraging Accredited Universities
The Brookings Institute recently released a report that revealed a majority of the 230,000 plus foreign students who enter the US every year intend to pursue a bachelor’s degree or higher degree through accredited schools. Therefore, the OPT program could be expanded to only apply to graduates from schools that are accredited through the Department of Education.
Setting Wage Guidelines
The Obama Administration could also help to set wage expectations, similar to those seen in current H-1B visa guidelines program. The guidelines would apply to employers hiring graduates through the OPT for more than one year. This proposal would protect foreign-student workers from exploitation and reduce any adverse effects on the wages of native-born workers.
Creating a Pathway to Permanent Residency
Potential Pathway for Green Cards
Immigration reform requires complex legislation and OPT program reform is only part of it. However, the President could propose a bill to Congress to allow foreign graduates from accredited schools to directly apply for green cards. Many foreign-student graduates already rely on H-1B employment-based visas to stay longer than is allowed under the OPT program. However, only 26,000 of the annually available 85,000 H-1B visas were granted to foreign graduates of U.S. Universities this last year.
Adjusting for Backlogs in India and China
Additional reform is needed to select countries which supply the majority of foreign born students pursuing STEM degrees. U.S. immigration law currently caps the share of every country to 7 percent of the total. As a result, this creates a long backlog for Indian and Chinese nationals, the two largest contributors of STEM students.
Keeping Talented Graduates in the U.S.
There is plenty of potential to improve the current system for foreign-born students who wish to pursue STEM degrees. However, encouraging these graduates to continue to reside in the U.S. will require effort from the federal government with support from both foreign-born and U.S. citizens.
We Are Ready To Help You Reach Your Goals!
Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC has extensive experience managing all types of cases involving student visas, OPT cases and CPT cases. If you are interested in learning more about your eligibility for these options or would like to discuss your case, call Pride Immigration Law Firm PLLC or send us a message online today!
Beeraj Patel, Esq.
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