Foreign STEM students may lose extended post-graduation work permit

A federal court ruling could end a program that allows tens of thousands of international students studying science, technology, engineering and math in the United States to work in this country for nearly two and half years after graduation.

“I was a little surprised because the rule has been in existence since 2008,” said Salman Cheema, a post-doctoral scholar in computer science at Arizona State University. “And a lot of people have got this extension.”

The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a union for U.S. tech employees, filed the lawsuit arguing the STEM Optional Training Program extension allows foreigners to work in the U.S. while on F-1 student visas.

Under the OPT program, all F-1 students are eligible to work in the U.S. in their major-related fields for one year. STEM students qualify for an additional 17 months.

Holly Singh, director of ASU’s International Students and Scholars Office, sees the 17-month extension for STEM students as essential for the U.S. economy and necessary to fill the need for technical workers in this country.
“In fact, if you look at the STEM field in our graduate school, more than 50 percent of the students are international,” Singh said. “If it was not for the need of our market, we wouldn’t be wanting that many international students in the STEM field.”

Cheema is originally from Pakistan and came to the U.S. in 2007. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Central Florida last year, Cheema came to ASU and began to lead a research lab funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, working on creating new classroom materials and workflows using Android tablets.

In Cheema’s lab, 13 out of the 14 people are international students.

“Yes, they are concerned,” Cheema said.