In a big relief to over two lakh Indian students in the US, President Donald Trump exempted the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme or F-1 visa category from suspension in his latest executive order on US visas.
Trump on Monday signed the executive order suspending non-immigrant visas such as H-1B and L-1 till December with the possibility of a further extension. The move was aimed at improving the employment opportunities for US citizens, as COVID-19 caused the unemployment rate to shoot up to over 40 million.
The new order will impact H-1B, H-2, L-1, J-1 and H-2B visa categories. However, optional training programme, which foreign students avail after graduation was left untouched.
Most Indian graduates in the US avail the OPT programme, which allows them to secure temporary employment in the US for up to three years after graduation.
What is OPT?
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services defines OPT as temporary employment that can be availed by foreign students (F-1 visa) before or after the completion of studies. The time period of OPT is one year. However, if you are a Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) student, you can get a 24-month extension.
In essence, STEM graduates get three years of temporary employment in the US. This is beneficial for both company and student as they are exempted from paying taxes. According to the DHS site, STEM OPT participant is not considered a resident for five calendar years in F-1 status. So companies that hire save on taxes to some extent.
What could be the reason for not suspending OPT?
A suspension of OPT would have hurt US higher educational institutions. Indians are the biggest student population in the US after China. There are about 250,000 Indian graduates in the US.
According to a report by Breitbart, close to 70,000 Indian graduates got work permits for OPT jobs in 2018. These can be effectively converted to H-1B and then the Green Card. That was one of the reasons why the visa was under scrutiny.
However, suspending OPT would have made higher education in the US unattractive. With no prospects of jobs, students might not have pursued masters in US institutions, which costs roughly Rs 40-50 lakh.
According to a report by Open Doors, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the US economy in 2018, an increase of 5.5 percent over the previous year.
So OPT is exempt. But what about job prospects?
The exemption could benefit fresh graduates as companies would be open to employing them in place of H-1B workers.
While those completing their third year OPT might face challenges in finding jobs, for others, this does offer opportunities. But with so many uncertainties, there is no guarantee that companies will be willing to sponsor the coveted H-1B visa for Indians in the coming years.Click here for our entire coverage of the H-1B visa ban