The Department of Homeland Security is on the verge of adopting new rules  for a foreign student visa program that critics contend stretches beyond recognition what it means to be a “student” and straight into what it means to be “cheap foreign labor.”
If adopted later this year as expected, the new rule will allow foreigners who come to the United States to pursue STEM degrees — science, technology, engineering and math — to live and work in the country for up to three years after graduating.
John Miano, a New Jersey lawyer who represented the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in a lawsuit, said the rule is a transparent attempt to allow businesses to get a greater number of cheaper foreign workers than are allowed to enter under a different program.
“It was entirely an end run around the H-1B [visa] quotas,” he said.
The F-1 Optional Practical Training program allows foreigners to stay in the United States to get practical experience in their field. The Department of Homeland Security in 2008 decided to give STEM graduates on F-1 visas a 17-month extension.
The government approved the change a few months after Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates testified before Congress.
The government approved the change a few months after Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates testified before Congress that extending the program to 29 months “would help alleviate the crisis employers are facing due to the current H-1B visa shortage.”
A federal judge in August rejected a challenge to the department’s authority to grant the STEM extension, but ruled the department had failed to give the public an opportunity to comment before making the rule change. The Obama administration went back to the drawing board and rewrote the rule — this time extending the time that STEM graduates can remain in the U.S to a full three years.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an email to LifeZette that he was incredulous that “the Obama administration has doubled down and even wants to expand the program.”
The government is giving the public 30 days — half the normal amount of time — to comment on the new proposed rule. The public can submit comments online  until 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 18.
But Miano said the outcome is preordained.
“It’s a complete joke,” he said. “DHS wrote [the original rule] in absolute secrecy and then rammed this through without notice or public comment.”
The plaintiffs have appealed, so there is a chance that an appellate court could determine that the government lacks the authority to make the changes it seeks without explicit congressional approval.
“Our view is if you have graduated and are working for three years, you’re not a student,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, whose legal arm participated in the legal challenge.
“The OPT program started off as a training program. But it’s no longer a training program. It’s a foreign-worker program.”
Supporters argue that the government is well within its rights to extend the training period for STEM workers. William Stock, a lawyer in Philadelphia and president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said it also is good policy. It would be crazy to attract the world’s best and brightest to U.S. colleges and then send them home rather than allowing the American economy to benefit from their skills, he said.
“It’s a way to keep the human capital that American universities have educated,” he said, arguing that the country has a shortage of STEM workers.
But some Americans with advanced degrees said they have firsthand, negative experience with the program. A Wisconsin man, who requested anonymity for fear that it would hurt his job prospects, told LifeZette that 75 percent of the students in his classes were foreigners.
He said he earned a master’s degree in statistics and worked for a time until his employer decided not to renew his contract.
“I was let go, and at that time, my three closest co-workers were all in the process of renewing their visas,” he said.
The man said he was unemployed for about two years before finally taking a $10-an-hour retail job.
A study  last year by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies found that in 2012, 12.1 million U.S. residents had STEM degrees, but only 5.3 million people were employed in STEM jobs.
“It’s silly,” said Marguerite Telford, a spokeswoman for the group. “The OPT program started off as a training program. But it’s no longer a training program. It’s a foreign-worker program.”