World Education Services
President Barack Obama’s recent executive action made headlines because it could keep five million undocumented immigrants from being deported. But international students in the U.S. have cause to celebrate as well: According to the executive order, they will have a chance to remain in the country for a longer period of time after graduating.
Obama's executive order includes plans to expand and extend the federal Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which enables foreign students to work in the U.S. while they're in school and for some period of time after they graduate.
Currently, students in science, technology, engineering and math fields – or STEM fields – can remain in the U.S. on visas for 29 months after graduating, while others can remain for 12 months. In 2012, Obama expanded the STEM category to include computer and information sciences.
The exact details of the extension are still unclear, but Obama has directed the Department of Homeland Security to suggest changes that could include expanding the definition of STEM fields again or increasing the visa times even more. The proposed Senate bill would eliminate the existing backlogs for employment-based green cards, exempt certain employment-based categories from the annual cap, and remove annual country limitations altogether. The bill would also exempt STEM Ph.D. and master’s graduates from the annual cap of 140,000 visas. This provision would effectively staple a green card to the diplomas of advanced STEM graduates from U.S. universities. The executive action would also allow some foreign students on F-1 visas to request 12 additional months of F-1 visa status and allow others with advanced degrees or exceptional skills to seek green cards without employer sponsorship.
"Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us?" Obama said in his nationwide address on Nov. 20." Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America?"
Advocates of the controversial program have said the country is experiencing an unnecessary brain drain because many foreign students who come to the U.S. and receive degrees in sought-after STEM fields leave soon after finishing their programs and don't contribute to the economy because of visa restrictions. However, critics of the OPT program claim foreign students abuse the program to acquire unauthorized employment in the U.S. and make it nearly impossible for the federal government to track them. As of November 2013, about 100,000 of the million foreign students in the U.S. were participating in the OPT program.
Foreign students' interest in STEM fields has significantly increased in recent years, according to a new report from the Institute of International Education. The number of foreign students studying engineering in the U.S. increased by more than 10 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, while the number of students pursuing math and computer science majors increased by nearly 18 percent.
What does this mean for international students who wish to work in the U.S.?
STEM students will likely see an extension in the length of their work visa in the near future. They should hope for the best, while understanding that no actual timelines have been established for the key immigration changes aimed at helping foreign skilled workers.
What are your thoughts on Obama’s executive order? Is this a landmark action for international students, or just a small step forward for student mobility?