Senators urge H-1B visa program expansion

Nineteen senators are urging Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to expand a program offering temporary work authorizations allowing foreign students to be employed by information technology companies in the United States.

The Optional Practical Training authorization is a program which, similarly to H-1B visas, offers foreigners who have attended U.S. universities an opportunity to gain practical experience working at U.S. tech firms.

Expansion of the H-1B visa program is a high-priority issue for U.S. technology companies that maintain they are experiencing a severe shortage of skilled workers. Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates and the Information Technology Association of America have lobbied for H-1B expansion. However, many IT employees say that allowing more foreign workers depresses wages of U.S. workers and costs them jobs.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and the 18 other senators on Nov. 8 asked Chertoff to exercise his regulatory authority to extend the maximum optional training period to 29 months, from 12 months currently.

"Extending the maximum OPT period to 29 months would be an important first step in addressing the crisis caused by the record shortage of skilled-worker visas," Lieberman said in a statement. "We must enable our companies to access the talent they need, which ensures that they will keep jobs on our shores and that they will continue to grow in this country."

There was high demand for the 65,000 H-1B visas granted for 2007 to foreign graduates of U.S. universities, according to a news release from Lieberman's office. The program received 133,000 applications on April 1, the day the application period opened, and on the following day, it stopped accepting applications.

Extension of the training period, which applies to foreign students still attending school at U.S. universities, would have a beneficial impact on H-1B visa availability as well, Lieberman said. With a longer period of training eligibility, more students will be eligible for the training authorizations and more graduates will be eligible for the H-1B visas, the new release said.

"I commend Senator Lieberman for urging Secretary Chertoff to expand opportunities for practical training after graduation. These students have a lot to offer ? it's win-win for students and the U.S. economy," Richard Levin, president of Yale University, said in a statement released by Lieberman.

The request is endorsed by the Association of American Universities.

Lieberman also is the sponsor of the Skilled Worker Immigration and Fairness Act of 2007 (S. 1397) that would increase the annual allotment of H-1B visas and make more foreign graduates exempt from the allotment cap.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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