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Foreign OPT students work long hours for low pay, says professor

Sen. Grassley also raises concerns about federal Optional Practical Training program during Judiciary Committee hearing

Foreign students in the federal Optional Practical Training (OPT) program often work long hours and for much less pay than their U.S. counterparts, according to Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University.

Panetta, who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to testify on the high-skill aspect of immigration reform and on women, was asked about the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) OPT program at the hearing by U.S. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley has also raised his own concerns about the OPT program.

There is widespread belief that employers are using the OPT program "to gain the expertise and labor of foreign students without having to pay for it," said Grassley.

In 2010, about 95,000 students applied for OPT, and few applications are denied, said Grassley.

OPT allows foreign students holding bachelor's, master's or doctorate degrees to work on their student visas for up to 29 months.

Graduates had been restricted to 12 months of work until 2008 when President George W. Bush's administration extended the time limit as a way to take some pressure a then rapidly filling H-1B cap.

OPT students are not subject to prevailing wage rules that employers must follow under the H-1B program. Once the OPT time limit is exhausted, employers may seek a visa for the workers.

"There are very few controls in place to ensure these foreign workers are not mistreated," said Grassley. "There is no requirement that a company first recruit and hire an American student with the same skills."

Grassley Monday introduced The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, which doesn't address the OPT program. The bill seeks a number of reforms to the H-1B program.

Panetta said her students are being tortured by the visa process.

Often, she said, a student will get an OPT certificate, go to work for a company that "never gives the a definitive honest offer" about what will happen once the OPT time limit expires. Thus, students are often put in the position of not knowing their future until the last minute, she said.

"The students have worked long hours -- 16 hour days -- never questioning," said Panetta. They are "are very complacent" and don't want to be seen as making waves, she said.

Panetta said the students are paid "substantially, magnitudes less" than U.S. workers. When one of her students brought up the pay issue with an employer, the employer responded by postponing a decision on a visa.

Panetta believes students in the program should be offered green cards.

"They come, we educate them here, and sometimes our government pays for their education. They want to stay, they want to be citizens of the United States," she said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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