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US expands work program to retain more foreign STEM students

The moves are designed to boost innovation in the US

Georgetown University seniors pose for graduation pictures in spring 2020.
Georgetown University seniors pose for graduation pictures in spring 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Biden administration has expanded the types of degrees that can qualify international students for a three-year work permit after graduation in an effort to grow U.S. competitiveness in math and science fields.

The Department of Homeland Security added 22 new degree programs to its list of fields that make graduates eligible to work up to three years in the U.S. under the Optional Practical Training program. The additional degrees added Friday include forestry, climate science, data science, financial analytics and some social sciences.

Under OPT, foreign students who graduate from American universities may stay and work in the U.S. for one year after graduation, at which point they would need to apply for a work visa. Though some may have country-specific visas available, many graduates find themselves vying for a coveted slot in an annual lottery for just 85,000 H-1B specialty occupation visas.

However, those who complete degrees in designated science, math, engineering or technology degrees may extend those work permits for an additional two years, giving them more time to work in the U.S. and more chances to secure a visa in the H-1B lottery.

“STEM innovation allows us to solve the complex challenges we face today and make a difference in how we secure and protect our country,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Through STEM education and training opportunities, DHS is expanding the number and diversity of students who excel in STEM education and contribute to the U.S. economy.”

Jon Baselice, vice president of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, praised the announcement, saying the changes will help alleviate the country’s labor shortage.

“These targeted actions will help American companies meet their critical workforce needs moving forward and is one of a series of key actions needed to address the workforce shortage crisis,” he said in a statement.

Linda Moore, CEO and president of TechNet, an association that counts Apple, Google and Zoom among its members, said the policy change would “increase STEM talent, strengthen our economy, and increase America’s global competitiveness.”

“We also urge Congress to come together and pass much-needed immigration reforms that can provide further relief to businesses and spur innovation and economic growth,” she added in her statement.

The change also signals a shift in stance toward high-skilled work visas from the prior administration.

Trump administration officials issued policies that ramped up scrutiny of visa requests and renewals and attempted to revamp the H-1B lottery to prioritize those offered the highest salaries — a move critics said would lock out recent graduates.

Former Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf also hinted the OPT STEM program could be on the chopping block, though the administration never scrapped the program.

While immigration policy is typically divisive on Capitol Hill, the work permit program is one issue that generally draws bipartisan support.

In June 2020, amid rumors the program could be nixed, 21 House Republicans wrote the Trump administration urging officials to protect OPT STEM.

They asked the then-leaders of DHS and the State Department to “adopt appropriately streamlined processes” to ensure foreign students can enter the U.S. despite pandemic-era border closures. They also called for preserving STEM OPT, saying it “allows our country to globally compete for market share of international students.”

“As countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, China and Australia bolster immigration policies to attract and retain international students, the last thing our nation should do in this area is make ourselves less competitive by weakening OPT,” the lawmakers wrote.

However, some immigration restrictionists oppose measures to bring more foreign citizens into the workforce. RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushes for lower levels of immigration, said in a statement Friday that the change marks “another loss for young American workers saddled with student loan debt.”

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