Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and 18 of his Senate colleagues called on Homeland
Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to expand an important work authorization
program that enables foreign graduates of U.S. universities to contribute to the
U.S. economy. Expansion of the program, known as Optional Practical Training (OPT),
would ease pressures affecting employers in Connecticut and nationwide, who are
increasingly unable to fill high-skilled positions.
Affirming their commitment "to promoting meaningful legislative remedies
including increasing the number of H-1B
and employment-based visas," the Senators urged that, in the interim, Secretary
Chertoff exercise his regulatory authority to extend the maximum OPT period from
its current 12 months to a new 29 months. "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," said Senator Lieberman.
"In Connecticut, and indeed across America, our innovative companies are
facing critical shortages of certain highly skilled workers. 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."
Expansion of OPT is particularly critical because of the shortage of skilled-worker
visas, known as H-1B visas - a shortage the Senators believe "threatens America's
economic competitiveness." Demand for H-1Bs was so high this year that the
government received 133,000 applications - more than double the annual 65,000
allowance - on April 1, the very first day applications were accepted. Excessive
demand prompted the government to stop accepting applications on April 2. But
because an H-1B application cannot be filed before a diploma is issued, U.S. employers
were unable to seek H-1Bs for U.S. university students who would graduate weeks
later. As a result, 2007 graduates who had applied their OPT allowance towards
internships, and 2006 graduates unable to secure H-1B visas, were lost to competitor
economies. If the maximum OPT period had been 29 months, U.S. employers would
have been able to continue employing these US-educated professionals long enough
to seek an H-1B visa for them the following year.
An extension of OPT would also help US universities compete for the world's top
students. Said Yale University President Richard Levin: “Yale and many other
American universities attract talented students from every region of the world.
Many of these students want to stay and have careers in the United States, but
immigration rules often discourage that. 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.
The Senators' call is endorsed by the Association of American Universities (AAU).
“On behalf of the 60 leading U.S. research universities that make up the
Association of American Universities, I urge Secretary Chertoff to take regulatory
action to extend Optional Practical Training from 12 months to 29 months,”
said Robert M. Berdahl, president of AAU. “Students from around the world
view the U.S. as the destination of choice for study and research opportunities.
For many, OPT is a necessary bridge between the expiration of their student visas
and their attainment of an H-1B visa. The extension of OPT from 12 months to 29
months will provide these talented international students with an opportunity
to receive an H-1B visa and to contribute to the U.S. economy.”
Lieberman, who is Chairman of the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental
Affairs Committee, was joined on the letter by Chairmen of four other committees
with jurisdiction over key immigration and business issues: Chairmen Leahy (Judiciary),
Inouye (Commerce), Kerry (Small Business), and Schumer (Joint Economic Committee).
Additional signatories are Senators Akaka, Alexander, Bennett, Cantwell, Collins,
Cornyn, Crapo, Hagel, Hatch, Landrieu, Bill Nelson, Murray, Smith, and Voinovich.
A longtime advocate of skilled-worker immigration reform, Lieberman is lead sponsor,
along with Senators Hagel, Cantwell, and Voinvoich, 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 US
graduate degree; a non-US graduate degree in science, technology, engineering
or math; or a US medical specialty certification.