Saturday, June 13, 2015

US may allow foreign students to stay for 6 years after degree

If American corporations can't hire H1-Bs, they can hire H1-wannabes. That in essence will be the outcome of the Obama administration's move to allow tens of thousands international students to stay on in the United States for up to six years after they finish their college degree.

The far-reaching proposal, which will be of interests to a large body of students from India who come to the US for higher education, comes amid continuing resentment in some American quarters about "low-wage" foreigners taking up jobs as illustrated in the fracas at Disneyworld, where native-born US workers, seen as opponents of free trade, are fuming about being displaced by guest workers from India in a trend broadly known as outsourcing, leading to tension in the world's best-known amusement park and an icon of Americana.

On Thursday, the anti-outsourcing brigade, gathering steam in an election season and supported by US lawmakers who back their protectionist stand, persuaded the US Labor Department to open an investigation into two India-based firms, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), for alleged violations of rules for visas for foreign technology workers under contracts they held with Southern California Edison, an electric utility. As in the case of Disneyworld, the power company is said to have laid off hundreds of US tech workers after they were forced to train workers from India under the H1-B visa program for guest workers.

But while anti-outsourcing groups were trying to shut down - or at least narrow — the H1-B gates, the Obama administration began the process to open another avenue to retain more high-skilled immigrant work force that many US corporations and experts say is needed in a country that simply does not graduate enough native-born STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) workers.

According to new regulations proposed by the administration and submitted before the Senate Judiciary Committee, students with STEM degrees can stay on in the US for a total of six years under the Optional Training Program (OPT) - three years after finishing an undergraduate program, and then if need be, another three years after a graduate program. This would give them as much work time in the US as foreign guest workers get under the H1-B program.

At present, OPT for international students who finish either an undergraduate or graduate program from a government-certified educational institution in the US is 12 months to 29 months depending on whether their degree is non-STEM or STEM. Typically, graduating students, a large number (upwards of 300,000) from China and India, use the OPT timeframe to land jobs, or internships leading to jobs, during which period employers usually sponsor them for an H1-B visa if their performance is good.

But with the increasing demand for H1-B visas, partly because many are cornered by outsourcing bodyshops, many foreign graduates who don't make the cut in the lottery system are forced to return to their home countries, much to the dismay of free-traders who believe the US is best served when the students it educates are retained in the country.

So the new proposal will essentially expand that window of opportunity to land a job and get an H1-B visa for up to six years, ensuring that a student who comes to the US to study is not under pressure to return. The new proposals, already under fire from lawmakers such as Chuck Grassley, comes on the heels of another Obama administration initiative to grant work permits to H-4 visa holders (spouses of H1-B) who meet certain eligibility requirements.

"The proposed new regulations, while still being internally discussed, are irresponsible and dangerous considering the Government Accountability Office report issued in March 2014 finding that the (OPT) program was full of inefficiencies, susceptible to fraud, and that the Department was not adequately overseeing it," Grassley complained a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Source: The Times of India, June 13, 2015

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