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Senators Call to Expand Optional Practical Training (OPT) Program
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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. economy.”

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.

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