With an increase of H-1B visas stalled in Congress, 19 U.S. senators Nov. 8 called for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to expand the Optional Practical Training program for foreign students from the current 12 months to 29 months.
The OPT is a temporary employment authorization that gives foreign students an opportunity to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to a practical work experience off-campus. The program is run under the auspices of the Homeland Securitys Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"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," Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., 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."
An increase in the specialized-occupation temporary worker visas (H-1Bs) had been a top priority for the technology sector, which claims there are not enough qualified U.S. workers to fill their advance-degree positions. Just one day after the opening of the H-1B visa program process, the 2008 allotment of 85,000 H-1B visas was already gone. Last year, it took a month to exhaust the supply of H-1B visas.
While many on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate support an increase in H-1B visas, the issue is tied to the broader, more controversial immigration debate. The overall proposed immigration bill failed in the Senate earlier this year.
Robert Berdahl, president of the American Association of Universities, said the extension of OPT from 12 months to 29 months will provide talented international students with an opportunity to receive an H-1B visa.
"Students from around the world view the U.S. as the destination of choice for study and research opportunities," Berdahl said in a statement accompanying Liebermans. "For many, OPT is a necessary bridge between the expiration of their student visas and their attainment of an H-1B visa."
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Lieberman is lead sponsor of the Skilled Worker Immigration and Fairness Act of 2007 (S. 1397). The bill would increase the annual allotment of H-1B visas and exempt from numeric caps all foreign nationals holding a U.S. graduate degree; a non-U.S. graduate degree in science, technology, engineering or math; or a U.S. medical specialty certification.
Lieberman, who is chairman of the Senates Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was joined in his call for OPT expansion by chairmen of four other committees with jurisdiction over key immigration and business issues: Patrick Leahy (Judiciary), Daniel Inouye (Commerce), John Kerry (Small Business) and Charles Schumer (Joint Economic Committee).
Other senators signing the letter to Chertoff include Democrats Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Bill Nelson (Florida) and Patty Murray (Washington).
Republicans endorsing Liebermans proposal include Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Robert Bennett (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Chuck Hagel (Nebraska), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Gordon Smith (Oregon) and George Voinovich (Ohio).
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