Elena Scotti/FUSION

The Department of Homeland Security today proposed extending a controversial work permit program for international students working in the U.S.

In a move highly anticipated by more than 34,000 recent graduates who depend on the program for their visa status, the agency said it plans to give international students who study science and technology two extra years to stay and work in the U.S., instead of the current 17 months.


The work permit program, Optional Practical Training (OPT), lets students from other countries who go to college in the U.S. stay here and work for a year after they graduate. Students majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields received an additional 17 months under an extension approved during the George W. Bush administration.

A court ruled in August that the government did not properly solicit public comment when it implemented the 17-month extension in 2008. The judge gave DHS until Feb. 16 to redo the public comment process with a new rule. If that deadline isn't met, the 34,000 employees on the program will have to go back to their home countries.

On Friday, the government started that do-over process by publishing a new draft rule for public comment. (While the text of the draft rule was posted online, it is not officially being published until Monday, and won't go into effect for several months.) This proposed extension would actually go further than the one the court objected to, raising the extra time for STEM students from 17 months to 24 months.

Opponents of the OPT program say that it takes jobs away from American citizens. John Miano, the lawyer representing the technology workers union who sued it, told me last month that he expected to sue again after the new rule was published.


In addition to increasing the length of the extension, the proposed new rule also requires formal mentoring and training plans by employers and includes new wage protections for students and graduates on the program. It only allows extensions for students with degrees from accredited schools.

“Our nation will benefit from keeping international students here, educated in U.S. colleges and universities here while they receive additional training, rather than sending them out of the country,” Sarah R. Saldaña, the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement to Fusion. “At the same time, U.S. employers will benefit from the increased ability to rely on the skills acquired by U.S. educated-STEM students, as well as their knowledge of markets in their home countries.”


Now the federal government is on a ticking clock leading up to the court-imposed Feb. 16 deadline. There will be 30 days of public comment on the draft rule starting Monday, that go through November 18. Then DHS will review the comments and take them into consideration before publishing a final rule. Usually, there are an additional 60 days before rules actually go into effect, although government officials say the timeframe may be shorter due to the court deadline.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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