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As part of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration announced last fall, the White House said that the Department of Homeland Security would propose changes to “expand and extend the use” of the optional practical training (OPT) program, which currently provides temporary work authorization to international students for 12 months postgraduation with an additional 17-month extension for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The White House did not release any further information at the time, but new details about possible changes are discussed in a letter from the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, opposing the administration’s plans to expand the OPT program.

Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, wrote that officials from Homeland Security briefed Senate Judiciary staffers on May 28 about the proposed changes. Based on the briefing, Grassley wrote that his understanding is that the department is moving ahead with proposed regulations that would lengthen the OPT STEM extension period from 17 to 24 months and allow students to take advantage of the extension at two different points in their academic careers rather than only once -- “for a total of up to six years of postgraduation employment in student status.”

Grassley wrote that another planned change would permit “foreign graduates of non-STEM U.S. degree programs to receive the 24-month extension of the OPT period, even if the STEM degree upon which the extension is based is an earlier degree and not for the program from which the student is currently graduating (e.g. student has a bachelor’s in chemistry and is graduating from an M.B.A. program).”

“The proposed new regulations, while still being internally discussed, are irresponsible and dangerous considering the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in March 2014 finding that the program was full of inefficiencies, susceptible to fraud, and that the department was not adequately overseeing it,” Grassley wrote.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division issued a statement saying that it could not elaborate on its plans for the OPT program. “ICE is in the midst of drafting proposed rules for notice and public comment regarding foreign students with degrees in STEM fields from U.S. universities. Due to rule-making requirements, we cannot discuss the content of that proposed rule at this time,” the statement said.

“In response to a 2014 GAO report, ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has already deployed various tools to better monitor students’ participation in what is known as optional practical training (OPT),” the statement continued. “SEVP has implemented an outreach campaign geared to school officials to educate them about OPT, and the program deployed a risk assessment tool to identify and analyze emerging fraud trends. SEVP is also in the process of making several Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) enhancements to better capture students’ participation in the OPT program.”

“Moving forward, SEVP welcomes the opportunity to enhance OPT so legitimate students are granted training opportunities with employers in the STEM field.”

Many in American higher education would welcome an expansion of the pathway for international students to stay and work postgraduation, as the ability to do so can be a factor in recruiting them to come to U.S. universities in the first place. An OPT placement is not permanent, but it provides an opportunity for a student who wants to stay in the U.S. long-term to get career experience and apply for one of a limited number of H-1B guest worker visas.

Some other Western countries -- Canada, as one example -- are more open to international students staying on after graduation than the U.S.

“As we continue to lose our market share of globally mobile students and scholars to countries with friendlier immigration policies, we particularly applaud the president for recognizing the importance of having avenues for students to stay and work here,” NAFSA: Association of International Educators said in a statement it issued last November immediately following Obama’s speech on immigration-related executive actions.

However, a lawsuit filed last year by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a labor union, criticizes the OPT program for creating unfair competition in the form of a class of cheaper foreign workers and for circumventing statutory quotas on the number of H-1B visas. The union’s challenge to the 17-month OPT STEM extension is pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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