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US: OPT to stay, but other temporary work visas suspended

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International students graduating in the US in 2020 will have their working options limited because of a new visa freeze. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

For weeks now, international students in the US have been wondering if they would have their Optional Practical Training Programme (OPT) permit or US visa suspended as a result of tightened immigration laws. The latest OPT news is the programme for international students is left alone — for now.

On Monday June 22, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending temporary visas for foreign workers until the end of 2020. The OPT programme, however, will remain in place.

H1-B visas have allowed technology workers and graduates — many from India — to work in the US, especially Silicon Valley. Last year, 225,000 hopefuls applied for 85,000 spots on the H1-B visa programme.

Documented immigrants make up approximately 12% of the US workforce. Without these US work visas, the US may be opening a skills gap within its STEM-based industries.

Is your US visa suspended?

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Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa receive masks before harvesting in Greenfield, California back in April. This US work visa group will not be affected by the new executive order. Source: Brent Stirton/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

This new order will not affect individuals currently in the US under work visas, or those outside the country with valid visas. Rather, it means that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not issue new visas for the rest of the year.

The visa groups suspended from this point on are:

  • H-1B visas for high-skilled workers
  • H-2B visas for seasonal workers, except selected individuals in healthcare and agriculture
  • H-4 visas for spouses of H-1B visa holders
  • L-1 visas for corporate executives
  • J-1 visas for short-term exchange, except scholars and professors

This comes after the US banned a segment of Chinese students from F-1 and J-1 visas effective June 1.

The latest executive order extends the suspension of green card issuance in the US until Dec. 30. These restrictions will keep as many as 525,000 foreign workers out of the US for the rest of the year.

The US government is also expected to flesh out immigration reforms. This includes giving out H1-B visas to highest-earning applicants, instead of relying on the lottery system currently in place.

OPT news: Programme for international students the only active foreign worker programme now

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The American flag is reflected in a Cafe as people queue for coffee at Times Square as New York City enters phase two of reopening June 22, 2020. Source: Johannes Eisele/AFP

On the bright side, successful OPT applicants can proceed to find work in the US this year.

Still, international students should bear in mind that the US government can place limits or begin to roll the programme back at any time. An executive order is not necessary.

The OPT was granted to 223,085 international students in the 2018/19 academic year. One out of five student visa holders participated in this programme the year before that.

In a 2017 survey by non-profit World Education Services, three-quarters of international students said gaining work experience was critical to their choice to study in the US.

While Trump supporters welcome the latest order as a safeguard for American jobs in the pandemic, labour agencies and university leaders warn against turning away foreign labour.

US Chamber of Commerce chief executive Thomas J. Donahue likened the latest working visa suspensions to “putting up a ‘not welcome’ sign for engineers, executives, IT experts, doctors, nurses.”

“Restrictive changes to our nation’s immigration system will push investment and economic activity abroad, slow growth and reduce job creation,” he said.

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