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US: STEM OPT restrictions would be “harmful” to economy

A study by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) has revealed that planned changes to post-study work arrangements for international students could lead to a loss of jobs and investment in the US.

Donald Trump US PresidentThe Trump administration may soon eliminate STEM OPT, according to NFAP sources. Photo: Gage Skidmore.

"International students are key to America's future in science and engineering"

Current Optional Practical Training arrangements allow international students in STEM fields to work an additional two years beyond the 12 months allowed under OPT. However sources suggest the Trump administration could be poised to end STEM OPT.

The NFAP study found 81% of the country’s full-time graduate students in electrical engineering and 79% in computer science are international students. The additional two years has proven vital for STEM students because it provides them with a chance to obtain H-1B status.

NFAP executive director Stuart Anderson said international students are “key” to America’s future in science and engineering.

“Preventing talented foreign-born science and engineering students from working in America after graduation would be harmful to the American economy,” he said.

“Countries with which the US competes for talent, such as Canada and Australia, make it comparatively easy for international students to work after graduation. Ending STEM OPT could have a negative impact on America’s position as a centre for innovation.”

“Eliminating STEM OPT would have a chilling effect on international students, causing many to rethink applying to US universities”

He said that eliminating STEM OPT would compel US companies to change recruiting practices if they believed approval for an H-1B was unlikely because international students could only stay 12 months in OPT status.

According to NFAP, ending STEM OPT would encourage US companies to place more international graduates of US universities outside of the country, limiting available jobs by pushing investment abroad.

Anderson added that a shift in resources – including design centres and engineering – would also result in fewer opportunities for US workers, the opposite of what advocates of ending STEM OPT aim to achieve.

The study also found that a loss of many international students in STEM fields would cause science and engineering programmes to shrink or disappear at many US universities. Over the past two decades, foreign nationals have helped fill the demand for high-level technical talent in the US that domestic students alone could not.

“Eliminating STEM OPT would have a chilling effect on international students, causing many to rethink applying to US universities,” said Jackie Bangs, assistant director of international programs at Oregon State University.

The high number of international students also plays a key role in US university’s ability to attract and retain faculty, who rely on graduate students to conduct research.

However according to professor of immigration law Stephen Yale-Loehr, the legal case for maintaining STEM OPT is strong.

“A federal court has already held that the Department of Homeland Security had the statutory authority to publish a rule extending OPT to students in STEM fields,” he said.

“The court noted that since at least 1947, the immigration agency has interpreted the immigration laws to allow foreign students to engage in employment for practical training purposes. During all that time, Congress acquiesced to that interpretation,” he added.

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