In President Obama's recent speech on immigration, he indicated that he would be directing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. OPT allows foreign students in the U.S. to remain in valid F-1 student visa status after graduation while working temporarily for a U.S. employer.
Currently, OPT lasts for 12 months for students in most fields. If a student's field of study is a STEM discipline - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - they are now eligible for a 17 month extension of OPT status.
President Obama has asked DHS to look into expanding the program, but the details of OPT expansion are unclear. The speculation is that the extension might be given to students in other fields and/or the extension may be lengthened to as much as 48 months. DHS will follow the rulemaking process in which it will propose changes, ask for comment from interested stakeholders and proceed from there.
Optional practical training benefits employers and foreign students alike. The employer has the opportunity to vet the student and see if they are a good fit for the company. If so, the employer can choose to file an H1b employment visa application with USCIS on the employee's behalf. At the same time, the foreign student gets to stay in the U.S., get good work experience and hopefully impress the employer enough to make them want to keep him or her.
The other major benefit to OPT is that it allows the student to stay in the U.S. while the H1b application makes its way through the system. Due to the numerical cap placed by Congress on the number of H1b employement visas, the resulting visa lottery and the strict April 1st deadline, the OPT system serves as a bridge for the foreign student's F1 visa status and their employment status under H1b. The 17 month extension allows STEM students and their employer sponsors two chances at the H1b lottery - once under the initial OPT grant and one on the extension.
According to the Washington Post and the GAO, approximately 100,000 foreign students utilized the OPT program last year.
OPT is not without its critics as some claim that schools and employers are not monitoring the work being performed enough and that the system depresses wages. Others criticize OPT due to the fact that employers must participate in E-verify, the clunky, controversial employer registration system, in order to get that 17 month extension for foreign student workers.