On May 11, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it has expanded the list of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-designated degree programs that qualify eligible graduates on F-1 student visas for a 17-month optional practical training (OPT) extension. The expanded STEM-Designated Degree Program List now includes some 90 additional STEM fields.

Generally, an F-1 student may only engage in OPT for 12 months. F-1 students who graduate from designated STEM programs can obtain a 17-month extension of OPT as long as the employer is registered with E-Verify. By expanding the list of designated STEM degree programs to include fields that were previously limited or excluded, such as pharmaceutical sciences, econometrics and quantitative economics, the DHS hopes to attract the best, most qualified international students to the United States.

As we reported in the February 2012 issue of the Immigration eAuthority, the DHS announced its continued desire to engage in procedural practices aimed at retaining highly-skilled foreign science and technology graduates educated at U.S. universities. The proposed initiatives also are designed to streamline existing pathways for immigrant entrepreneurs in order to attract new business investment to the United States and help U.S. start-ups and other companies compete for global talent.

According to the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, foreign graduates “bring invaluable contributions to our nation.” Initiatives that enable international students and exchange visitors “to contribute their professional growth” play an important part in “our nation’s economic, scientific and technological competitiveness,” thereby helping to “empower the next generation of international entrepreneurs.”

The DHS also proposed expanding eligibility for OPT extensions to include students who have earned a STEM degree at any time, thus no longer limiting the extension to those whose most recent degree was from a STEM program. Currently, however, F-1 foreign students qualify for the 17-month extension of OPT only if their most recent degree is in a STEM field designated by the DHS and all the other requirements are met.

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