Should Foreign Graduates Get a Visa Edge?

Decades ago there was a hit song in India, a tear-jerking anthem about mothers mourning the loss of sons who went to school abroad and never came back.

The tune has changed. “It used to be by default students from India and China, in particular, bought one-way tickets over here,” said Vivek Wadhwa, who has written extensively on international tech talent. “Now it’s a two-way street. They work for a few years and go home.”

According to a Brookings Institution analysis, in 2010 only 30 percent of foreign graduates of U.S. universities received an H-1B visa, awarded to temporary workers in specialty occupations.

And though 64 percent of all international students in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, come from India and China, they are still subject to the 7 percent cap per country that immigration law places on green cards. The wait is so long for permanent residency, many simply leave.

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In what they believe will stimulate innovation and the economy, tech companies, lawmakers and universities have been urging the administration to make it easier for international students to stay in the United States. Thus, the fate of foreign graduates has become yet another spark in the contentious debate over immigration reform, prompting a variation on a familiar question: Do foreign graduates get jobs at the expense of American workers?

That is what a technology workers union out of Washington State argued when it sued the Department of Homeland Security last year over an extension to its Optional Practical Training program. OPT allows international students to work for one year in the United States; in 2008, in response to the recession, the department had granted STEM graduates an additional 17 months. But the Federal District Court hearing the suit has ruled that the department had erred by skipping the formal approval process and has until February to present its plan for public review, and then offer a revised rule. Meanwhile, the union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, has filed an appeal challenging the legality of the department even making such a policy.

The OPT extension, opponents argue, represents an end-around to the H-1B visa program that makes it easier for companies to hire low-cost foreign labor and for some unaccredited institutions to bring in students for short-term work instead of education. “I would hope that D.H.S. would say this is a really bad idea and we should phase this out,” said John Miano, the lawyer representing the union. “When people are on student visas serving as guest workers, how absurd is that? They are supposed to be students.”