The proposal to expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) system proposed recently by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could have huge implications not only for international students studying in USA on an F1 student visa, but also employers, local employees, universities and a whole lot of other stakeholders in the U.S. economy.
In order to understand the developments, let’s take a step back to understand the historical context.
The OPT system as you might know allows international students pursuing undergrad and graduate degrees in the U.S. to stay back after completing their courses without needing an H1B work visa.
The duration of the OPT depends on whether you’ve graduated from a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) where you get 24 months or non-STEM course where the OPT duration is limited to 12 months. STEM students could get an extension of 17 months after the first term was over.
In March 2014, we had reported about how the future of the OPT system was uncertain. Here’s the article – Optional Practical Training OPT to be suspended or cancelled?
That was when you probably read about Senator Chuck Grassley for the first time. He was very vocal with his concerns about tightening the screws on the OPT program.
It appears as if life’s come a full circle since then. Instead of cancelling or suspending the program the DHS is planning to expand it.
On May 28th 2015, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suggested several regulatory changes to the OPT program, the biggest one being the proposal to allow international students on an F1 visa to stay back and work in the U.S. for up to 6 years.
This would allow STEM and non-STEM students the ability to extend the OPT twice for 24 months each, after their earlier duration gets over.
This will drastically reduce the disparity between F1 and H1B visas.
In an earlier article we had mentioned about how the H1B visa lottery process makes it tough for international students. If the new F1 and OPT regulations are passed, international students can rejoice, as it takes away the tremendous uncertainty and urgency to get an H1B after completing their undergrad and graduate degrees in USA.
Without it, many international students who’ve taken big US Dollar loans can’t work in the U.S. to recoup their educational investments. They have no option but to come back to their home countries.
But while current and prospective students from other countries might start rejoicing if the proposal gets passed, there are bigger questions to answer.
Without an H1B visa, it may allow unscrupulous U.S. companies to exploit international students by hiring them as trainees (and paying them very low salaries) and not treating them like their ‘regular’ permanent employees who have much better benefits.
Senator Grassley is back in the picture and resisting this proposal. Apart from being upset that his earlier recommendations of stopping/controlling the original OPT process were not being implemented, he has apprehensions about these new changes too.
He sent a letter to DHS listing his views on why expanding the OPT is a bad idea.
Among the many points that he raises, his primary fear is that the proposed OPT changes would circumvent the checks and balances of the H1B process.
Currently there’s a 85,000 cap on H1B visas (65,000 under regular category and 20,000 for those with advanced degrees).
Without the regulatory pressure to recruit an equally qualified U.S. citizen for job vacancies, companies could use the backdoor approach to hire (cheaper) foreign workers.
As the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley holds a powerful position in the regulatory system and approval process. It’s tough to say how this story will unfold.
It may be a while before we know if the foreign students in the U.S. (especially those with expiring F1 visas who weren’t lucky in the H1B lottery system) heave a sigh of relief…or heave their bags and plan to return back to their home countries.
Read these related articles:
– Optional Practical Training OPT on F1 Visa in USA
– CPT vs OPT: Differences for international students in USA
– Optional Practical Training OPT to be suspended or cancelled?
Disclaimer: With our limited grasp of the legalities involved, if there’s been any misinterpretation of Senator Grassley’s letter or any other facts, do let us know.
Sources: www.grassley.senate.gov, americanbazaaronline.com | Image: NDTV