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Obama likely to expand a foreign-student pipeline the high-tech industry loves

In his speech Thursday night announcing executive action on immigration, President Obama is likely to say he will expand a program that acts as a pipeline for foreign students studying in the United States to join the high-tech workforce, say those closely involved in the immigration debate.

The potential expansion of the little known program, known as Optional Practical Training, would likely be a small part of Obama's announcement. But it would help address the tech industry's complaints about the lack of available high-skilled workers even as would likely spark concerns among both liberals and conservatives who have said the program is mismanaged.

Under the OPT program, international students can work while enrolled in a U.S. university or for a limited period after they graduate. As of last year, about 100,000 of the 1 million foreign students in the United States were allowed to work under the program. Under pressure from the tech industry, in 2008, the Bush administration expanded the program so that students in the so-called STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- could stay in the United States and work for up to 29 months.

There is currently no limit on the number of students who can qualify to work in the United States under OPT. But Obama could expand the types of students who qualify to stay for a longer period or further increase the time-limit on STEM authorizations, perhaps to 48 months, according to several people involved in the debate.

The tech industry has been begging for an expansion of the well-known H1-B visa program, which currently only allows a limited number of high-skilled foreign workers into the country. OPT has been a lower priority, but could act as a bridge for tech companies that want to keep recent foreign graduates on their payroll until they can secure an H1-B visa.

But the Optional Practical Training program, though, has had its strong critics. A February Government Accountability Office report found that schools and universities were providing little oversight of the students working under the program.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has complained about "extensive and alarming [Department of Homeland Security] mismanagement" of the OPT program. Some students have qualified while attending obscure universities that could act as a way for terrorists to enter the country, he has said. Grassley has called for a moratorium on OPT until, at least, the students already in the United States under the program can be located.

There are far fewer rules governing OPT than other immigration programs. Employers do not have to give U.S. workers preference before offering the job to a foreign student, for example, said Daniel Costa of the liberal Economic Policy Institute. It is "a de facto unregulated temporary worker program," he said.

All of which means it's a good bet that Obama would promise Thursday night that any expansion of OPT would come with better oversight of how the program works.

Obama could also, say observers, expand a visa program for specialized workers to help more entrepreneurs who might be eager to come to the United States and start companies on their own.

But other options that the tech industry has pushed for -- "recapturing" green cards that have gone unused in past years, allowing spouses and dependents to tag along on a worker's green card, or expanding the H1-B program itself -- say observers, can't be addressed through an executive order because they would affect caps on the total number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Those caps have traditionally been set by Congress.

The tech industry is holding its tongue, waiting for Obama's announcement. But Ron Hira, a professor of political science at Howard University and immigration expert, predicts that "the tech industry will thank the president for making these changes, and then say it isn't sufficient."

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