DHS Unilaterally Extends Visa Expiration Time Limits for STEM Graduates; Will Other Visa Categories Follow?

In a news release issued with little fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security announced two weeks ago that certain categories of foreign-born science students in the United States on non-immigrant visas will be allowed to remain for up to 29 months after graduation.

The newly increased overstay period will be offered to majors in agriscience, neuroscience and pharmacy related fields so that they may receive “further practical training.”

Although the time frames vary depending on the actual visa category, most typical F-1 students must either depart the U.S. 60 days after completing their course of study or have approval from USCIS to extend his stay.

As always, government explains away the recently liberalized visa conditions as being in the best interests of Americans since it will help keep allegedly talented graduates in the United States.

While it may be true that some science graduates, especially as they acquire more skills in a work environment, could become long-term contributors to American society, it nevertheless remains equally true that, as documented extensively by many critics including Professor Norman Matloff from the University of California at Davis, foreign STEM students are, on balance, no more or less talented than their American peers.

Even the mainstream Time Magazine, in its issue published May 26, 2011, is skeptical of the never-ending cry for more foreign-born science students. Citing a Duke University study that found that although many in Congress and Silicon Valley bemoan the progress made by India and China in producing STEM graduates, the authors learned that what’s counted as an engineering degree in those countries would often be considered a vocational certificate or two-year degree in the United States.  According to Time, “the Duke team found relative parity between the United States and China and India when the engineering comparison was apples to apples.”

The article also noted that “part of our STEM obsession is frankly just longtime habit,” and added that calls for more emphasis on STEM education dates back at least 50 years. During the last decade alone, Congress passed several STEM measures including the 2007 America Competes Act which includes measures to recruit and train teachers in STEM subjects. [The Next Great Resource Shortage, by Andrew Rotherman, Time Magazine, May 26, 2011]

A major concern is DHS’s unilateral decision to extend the overstay period for STEM graduates based exclusively on feedback it gets from the Obama administration that America is in dire need of more foreign-born scientists. What would keep DHS from deciding that other visa categories also need extended overstay time allocations?

At a minimum, especially in this period of sustained high unemployment, DHS should listen to arguments that debunk the long-held theory that the United States is at risk as a technology leader unless it continues to educate and train foreign-born scientists. The more effective solution is to hire and, if necessary, retrain unemployed Americans with STEM backgrounds.

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