A decades-old training program for international students is sticking around despite the Trump administration’s tightening of the reins on most other immigration-related programs.
“Imagine a guestworker program with looser rules, less oversight and enforcement, and far less transparency” than the H-1B visa program, Howard University professor Ron Hira said. “You don’t have to imagine—we have one—it’s the easily exploitable” optional practical training program, he said in an email.
Optional practical training, or OPT, allows international students at U.S. colleges and universities to work for at least a year after graduating while still maintaining their F-1 student visas.
OPT is frequently used as a pipeline to the H-1B visa, a target of the Trump administration since high-profile reports that workers on the visas were replacing U.S. workers in tech jobs at companies such as Southern California Edison and Walt Disney World. Unlike H-1B visas, OPT doesn’t have an annual cap on the number of participants, and so employers often hire workers on OPT so they can be employed while trying their hand at the H-1B lottery.
International students with degrees in science, technology, and mathematics have the option of working for up to three years post-graduation under a 2016 Obama administration regulation. The Bush administration had allowed STEM graduates to pursue OPT for up to 29 months.
Little Change by Trump
Despite some attempts to scale back the edges of the OPT program, however, the Trump administration hasn’t done much to curtail it.
“While we are not aware of any specific plans to change OPT, it is still a topic being discussed,” a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said. “Any significant changes to the existing regulation would be subject to the appropriate rulemaking process, which would provide an opportunity for public comment,” she said.
The Obama regulation didn’t just extend the length of STEM OPT, said Doug Rand, who worked on STEM OPT and other immigration policy while assistant director for entrepreneurship in the Obama White House. “We really tightened up the requirement that it be a true training and education experience,” he said.
“There was the policy goal” of making OPT “better and stronger and less subject to fraud and abuse,” said Rand, the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based immigration services company.
Jump in Enrollment
OPT enrollment exploded after the Obama administration expansion, going from 73,000 in 2014 to 172,000 in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. The bulk of that growth was driven by OPT participants with STEM degrees: there was a 400 percent increase in STEM graduate OPT participation between 2008 and 2016, compared with a 49 percent increase in OPT participants in non-STEM fields.
Most of those students studied at well-known colleges and universities, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.
But many “are coming out of universities you’ve probably never heard of,” said Hal Salzman, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
Northwestern Polytechnic University and Silicon Valley University, for example, accounted for more than 9,000 OPT approvals in 2017. Both have been accused of being “visa mills,” or schools that attract foreign nationals more for work opportunities than actual education. Silicon Valley University was shuttered last year. NPU is an accredited institution, recognized by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
“Visa mill” accusations against NPU “are categorically untrue,” the university said in a written statement. The WASC Senior College and University Commission, an accrediting body, did not find such claims credible “after conducting an exhaustive review,” NPU said. The university also noted its array of technical degrees, including bachelors and masters degrees in computer science and business administration.
“The arguments in favor of the extension” of OPT from one year to three “were ill-conceived,” Hira said. “There is no educational basis for anyone to need three years of work experience to complete their educational experience,” he said.
“This is government policy by ruse,” Hira said.
The expansion was intended to be the administrative equivalent of a prior legislative proposal to “staple” a green card to international students’ diplomas, Rand said. Without a change in the law, the regulation necessarily will be “inadequate,” he said. But it’s “better than nothing,” he said.
Critics say international students pursuing OPT carry cost advantages to employers that make them more desirable than U.S. workers.
OPT workers and their employers aren’t required to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, a 12.4 percent tax discount over workers who are, Hira said.
And the rule that OPT workers be paid wages comparable to those offered to similarly situated U.S. workers can be “easily gamed” because of the lack of enforcement, he said. Further, employers “can dangle the possibility of H-1B sponsorship as part of their bargaining leverage over wages and working conditions,” he said.
Recent studies suggest, however, that the program isn’t harming the U.S. labor market.
Only a small portion of students earning STEM degrees in the U.S. participate in OPT, according to a National Foundation for American Policy study conducted by University of North Florida professor Madeline Zavodny.
OPT workers make up less than 1 percent of all workers with a bachelor’s degree in STEM.
Recent research from the Niskanen Center also found that OPT isn’t having any negative effects on the wages and job opportunities of U.S.-born workers.
In fact, higher numbers of OPT workers in an area actually increase wages for higher-skilled U.S. workers, Jeremy Neufeld of the Niskanen Center said.
The narrative that the program is harming U.S. workers “doesn’t hold up to scrutiny,” he said.
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(Updated to add comment from NPU.)