The Future of Temporary Foreign STEM Workers Hangs in the Balance | DCR Workforce Blog

The Future of Temporary Foreign STEM Workers Hangs in the Balance

Have you ever heard the expression, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”? As the pre-election rhetoric heats up, we’re hearing more and more about illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, as the discussion continues to be a point of differentiation between candidates, we may be seeing the law of unintended consequences kick in.

A recent decision in Washington Alliance of Technology Workers v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has eliminated the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Optional Practical Training (STEM OPT) extension. The United States Court for the District of Columbia based its decision on procedural concerns, but stayed the implementation of the ruling until February 12, 2016. Let’s break down the implications of this ruling.

Foreign students, upon completing a degree from a US educational institution certified by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), are eligible for 12 months of optional practical training (OPT) to work for a U.S. employer in a job directly related to the student’s major area of study. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented the OPT Extension Rule that extended the eligibility of those holding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees to stay on in the United States for an additional period of 17 months if they are employed by a company that is enrolled in E-Verify and are awaiting processing of their H-1B petitions.

Without such an extension, the foreign students in the USA will be required to leave the United States once their 12-month OPT period concludes. While these individuals are NOT illegal immigrants, they would be forced into that category if they failed to leave.

So what does this have to do with cutting off your nose to spite your face? If we are to believe most analysts, and the growing numbers of U.S. corporations that are each spending millions of dollars annually to address the shortage of qualified STEM workers, our economy is suffering from a shortage of STEM skills. The United States has already invested heavily in the foreign-born students who studied for advanced degrees from U.S. universities in STEM fields.  Let’s examine the potential impact of the decision.

  • 886,000 international students studied at American colleges and universities during 2013-14, coming into the USA on student visas.
  • According to data from National Center for Education Statistics, international students earned 11.6 percent of all American doctoral degrees conferred during 2012-13. But in STEM fields, their share is much higher at 57 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering; 53 percent of doctoral degrees in computer and information sciences; and 50 percent of doctorates in mathematics and statistics.
  • STEM fields have much lower unemployment rates when compared to non-STEM unemployment. There is nearly full employment for STEM workers with advanced degrees in the US.
  • Two-thirds of entry-level hires in the tech industry are now going to foreign workers.
  • STEM fields employ a far higher proportion of foreign workers than non-STEM fields, with 26.1 per cent of workers holding PhDs and 17.7% of workers holding Master’s degrees being foreign-born. (Corresponding numbers in non-STEM fields stand at 6.4% for PhDs and 5.2% for master’s degree holders.)
  • A 2012 report co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that every foreign-born student who holds an advanced degree from a U.S. university and stays to work in a STEM field creates on average 2.62 jobs for U.S. workers, by helping lead in innovation, research and development.

As indicated above, these are individuals who have specialized in fields that drive innovation and foster new business ideas. Typically, when employed they are assigned to long-term projects that span years. A 12-month limit to their period of employment requires their departure just as they are beginning to make their greatest contribution.

If you are an employer, what impact do you expect this ruling to have on your hiring, promotion, and staffing decisions? Share your concerns and let the Department of Homeland Security know that they need to act to set matters right. Unless the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) decides to prepare and issue a hurried new OPT STEM extension, this ruling is bound to result in forcing many foreign STEM workers on F-1 visas to return to their native countries. So, the time to be heard on this is now!

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.