February 18, 2022

Grassley: STEM OPT Program Distorted into Back Door Visa for Foreign Students with no Accountability, Protections

WASHINGTON – Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is demanding clarity and accountability in the Optional Practical Training program for foreign students studying in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The STEM OPT program, of which Grassley has long been a critic, was originally designed to address concerns about alleged skilled worker shortages in the high-tech industry that might impact American international competitiveness.  
 
Under the STEM OPT program, foreign students studying at American educational institutions can qualify for up to three years of employment in the U.S. if their degree program is on a list of specifically designated and accredited STEM degree programs maintained and occasionally updated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
 
In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Grassley raises concerns about a recent trend among universities across the country attempting to repackage obviously non-STEM degree programs in an attempt to get those programs on the STEM OPT degree list. Grassley’s letter also raises questions about the Biden administration’s recent decision to add 22 new degree programs to the STEM OPT degree list.
 
“There is no way, under any common-sense understanding of what fields are considered STEM fields, that degree programs in economics, business, journalism, anthrozoology, industrial and organizational psychology – much less drama therapy and classics – should be considered degrees in STEM fields. Such fields are also certainly not science and engineering fields in which there is an alleged critical shortage of workers adversely affecting the international competitiveness of the high-tech industry,” Grassley wrote, regarding some of the degree programs repackaged as STEM by various universities or recently added to the STEM OPT degree list by the Biden administration.  
 
Grassley also notes his long-standing concern that the STEM OPT program, “…sets up a de facto new employment-based visa program for tens of thousands of foreign workers that serves as a shadow H-1B program, for the same length as the H-1B program, but without any of the protections for U.S. and foreign workers found in the actual H-1B program.”  
 
Grassley’s letter presses DHS for additional information on the adjudication process for STEM OPT Employment Authorization Documents and how officials regularly handle assertions that degree programs meet the appropriate criteria.  
 
The senator is also seeking information about whether department officials have ever played any role in the questionable repackaging by some universities of patently non-STEM degree programs as eligible for STEM OPT and whether the department agrees with the reclassification of the cited programs, like drama therapy and journalism.
 
Finally, Grassley asks for data about STEM OPT extensions for the last three years and specific explanations about the Biden administration’s recent proposal putting forward 22 new additions to the STEM OPT eligible programs list.  
 
Full text of Grassley’s letter to Mayorkas can be found HERE.
 

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