DHS extends work visa timeframe

Advocates for expanding opportunities in the United States for foreign information technology workers are welcoming the Homeland Security Department's new rule for foreign students. The rule more than doubles the number of months that a foreign student may stay in the United States after graduation while applying for a work visa.

Under the interim rule released April 4, the department is extending the Optional Practical Training period from 12 to 29 months for eligible foreign workers with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The rule also requires that the workers' employers be enrolled in the department's E-Verify program to electronically verify Social Security numbers of job applicants.

The interim rule also automatically extends the period of stay for eligible workers with pending applications for H-1B visas. It allows the foreign students to apply for the optional practical training within 60 days of graduation.

The new rule had been sought by advocates who want to enlarge the H-1B visa program, which allows 65,000 foreign skilled workers to work in the United States each year. In the past five years, thousands of applicants have been turned down for the H-1B visas because of excess demand, and proponents want to raise the number of visas granted.

But some U.S. IT workers say that expanding the number of foreign skilled workers in the U.S depresses wages and reduces job opportunities for citizens.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) proposed in November 2007 to extend the term for foreign students studying in the United States to 29 months in part to relieve pressure on the H-1B visa program.

Compete America, a coalition of IT companies and organizations promoting an increase in the 65,000 annual cap on H-1B visas, said the new rule will allow some foreign student graduates in IT and science to transition more easily from a student visa to a work visa.

Robert Hoffman, co-chairman of Compete America and vice president for government and public affairs at Oracle, said the expansion of student training is "a needed band-aid on a much larger crisis."

"Congress must complement this initiative by permanently reforming the H-1B visa and green-card systems, including a direct path to green-card status for the best and brightest, or America will face a massive bottleneck of talent," Hoffman said in a statement.

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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