Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a program that permits international students studying in the United States on F-1 student visas to pursue practical training with a U.S. employer in work that is directly related to their course of study. According to the Department of Homeland Security, over 1.5 million international students participated in OPT nationwide from 2004 to 2016. These numbers peaked in 2017 with 325,000 total participants. However, participation has since declined.
According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, about 276,500 foreign students were approved for OPT in 2017, an 8% increase over the previous year. This figure indicates significantly lower growth as compared to the 34% annual increase in OPT approvals for 2016. It is important to note that this slowdown in OPT approvals in 2017 coincided with low unemployment rates for U.S. workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, indicating that the decline in growth was caused by tightened regulations governing the OPT and not because of wider economic conditions.
While foreign students were previously permitted to work at a third-party worksite—for example, a client’s office—a new regulation by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requires foreign graduates working under OPT to now work at the employer’s place of business. Moreover, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers may now question international students and company managers during site visits to investigate students on OPT in STEM fields about their documentation and to ensure there is no involvement in a third-party site. During these visits, it is not only the foreign student employees under scrutiny but also the employer, as ICE examines the legitimacy of the training programs created by the employers for their trainees.
In addition to these stringent new regulations, OPT faces a lawsuit challenging its entire existence brought by a labor union, the Washington Alliance of Technical Workers. In response, on November 22, 2019, 118 public and private universities and colleges, including Haverford College, filed an amicus brief to defend the long-standing OPT program. The brief stresses how international students “contribute to the richness” of institutions by bringing diverse experiences to campuses and participating in valuable research, particularly in STEM fields. The brief also emphasizes the role international students play in the US economy. After all, in the 2017-2018 academic year, international students brought $39 billion to the US economy.
Haverford’s decision to sign on to the amicus brief marks another entry by the college into the legal controversy surrounding the Trump administration’s immigration and visa policies. In October 2018, Haverford joined four other colleges to file a lawsuit challenging newly tightened overstay rules for people studying in the United States on student visas.
As Haverford’s Dean for International Student Support Denise Allison stated in her email on Monday, November 25, drawing students’ attention toward the debate over the OPT program, “Let’s hope that OPT/STEM ext. will stay in place.” When asked for her specific views on this topic, Dean Allison declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the discourse surrounding the OPT program.
OPT amounts to the government offering a $30,000 incentive to employers for hiring a STEM foreign student instead of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. This bonus takes the form of the employer being exempt from paying payroll tax for their foreign student workers (due to their student status, which they technically still have under OPT in spite of having graduated). Why hire Americans, eh?
Since this tax exemption from payroll tax was pointed out in the lawsuits, and has been one of the major points raised by critics, DHS is well aware of it. Yet they refuse to address it or even acknowledge it.
In contrast to DHS previous statements, in which they openly admitted that they intend OPT as an end-run around the H-1B cap, they now describe OPT in warm and fuzzy terms of “mentoring” (putting the “T” back into OPT). That raises several questions:
If the U.S. indeed “needs” the foreign students to remedy a STEM labor shortage, why do these students need training? The DHS/industry narrative is that the U.S. lacks sufficient workers with STEM training, while the foreign workers are supposedly already trained. And, if workers with such training are indeed needed, why won’t these special mentoring programs be open to Americans? Why just offer them to foreign students? Since DHS admitted that its motivation in OPT is to circumvent the H-1B cap, does that mean that if the cap were high enough to accommodate everyone, these same foreign students wouldn’t need training after all?