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US work visa norms for students relaxed
George Joseph
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April 18, 2008

Even as the H1-B cap for the year was reached for regular and 'advanced degree' students, the Department of Homeland Security announced an extension of the Optional Practical Training period up to 29 months.

The OPT -- a temporary employment authorisation that gives F-1 students an opportunity to get practical work experience -- at present has a limit of 12 months; the extension is being hailed as a victory, however small, for companies including Microsoft and Oracle which had complained of the non-availability of H1-B visas. Compete America, a coalition of corporations, research institutions and trade associations, has welcomed the extension.

The extension is available only to F-1 students with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), who are employed by businesses enrolled in the E-Verify programme.

E-Verify is a free, Internet-based system operated in partnership with the Social Security Administration, which helps employers determine the employment eligibility of newly-hired employees.

"This rule will enable businesses to attract and retain highly skilled foreign workers, giving US companies a competitive advantage in the world economy," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

"By extending the training period by an additional 17 months to students who are employed by businesses enrolled in E-Verify, we are further ensuring a legal workforce in the US and aiding good corporate citizens."

Prior to the extension, students graduating in spring could not apply for the H1-B visa, as applications were closed April 7. They do not have the facility of remaining in the US and applying next year either, because by then the OPT's 12-month deadline would have passed.

The 17-month extension allows US employers to hire spring graduates and keep them in America until their H-1B visas become effective. The new rule also automatically extends the period of stay and work authorisation for all F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions. The rule will also implement certain programme changes, including allowing students to apply for OPT within 60 days of graduation.

To be eligible for an OPT extension, an F-1 non-immigrant student must:
~ Currently be participating in a 12-month period of approved post-completion OPT
~ Have successfully completed a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) included in the DHS STEM Designated Degree Program List from a college or university certified by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Student and Exchange Visitor Program
~ Be working for a US employer in a job directly related to the student's major area of study
~ Be working for, or have accepted employment with, an employer enrolled in the US Citizenship and  Immigration  Services'  E-Verify  programme
~ Properly maintain F-1 status.

"We are encouraged by the administration's move to keep talented graduates of US universities here in the United States, and look forward to reviewing the details of the regulation to assess how much relief this will provide," Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs at Oracle and co-chair of Compete America, said.

Microsoft chief lobbyist Jack Krumholtz applauded the extension, saying it 'allows US companies to recruit, hire, and retain the best graduating science, technology, engineering and math students trained at the top US universities.'

However, Kim Berry, who heads the Programmers Guild which opposes H1-B visas, disagreed. "Chertoff says flooding in more foreign workers is a way to bolster the US economy. Well, slavery and relaxation of child labour laws might bolster the economy too."

Meanwhile, the USCIS stated on April 7 that it has received enough petitions to fill the regular H1-B quota of 65,000, and also advanced degree holders' quota of 20,000. This marks the first year that both caps were reached during the filing period, Compete America pointed out.

It is also the second year in a row that the overall cap has been reached during the filing period, and the fifth consecutive year that the cap has been reached on or before the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The USCIS, which has received three times more applications than the quota, will now select applicants through a random selection process. It will first conduct the selection for 'advanced degree' exemption petitions; those who do not make that cut will get a second shot, as part of the random selection process for the 65,000 visas.

"US employers deserve better than a random lottery to determine if they can hire the highly educated candidates they need," Hoffman said. "Congress has failed to address the problem, as US universities graduate highly educated individuals who leave to work in competitor nations. This madness must end this year."

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