The OPT Program Should Be Abolished

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently released its annual report on the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). The report – which gathered its data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System – gives details of the international student population across the U.S. for the calendar year 2021.

The SEVP report provides insight into how many students are currently enrolled in the various academic visa programs, what regions of the U.S. these students are studying in, and the degree curriculum these visa holders are taking.

However, unlike previous SEVP reports, little information is provided in this year’s report on foreign students who completed their coursework and gained employment through the faulty Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. One of its few relevant data points is the number of recipients authorized to participate in the program last year. Earlier SEVP reports typically showed the top employers and issues associated with the OPT scheme.

Created in 1992 without congressional approval, OPT allows international students on F-1 visas to work temporarily in the country for up to three years after graduating from American universities. Many employers hire OPT recipients since they do not pay federal payroll taxes on these individuals, making it cheaper to employ foreign graduates than American graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields.

In Fiscal Year 2017, $1.98 billion dollars were lost in Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance program trust funds due to the tax exemptions from hiring OPT students.

Furthermore, OPT has no numerical cap, permitting employers to bypass the visa limits of the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program, allowing for more cheap foreign labor in the U.S., which results in fewer job opportunities for recent American STEM graduates.

In addition to snubbing U.S. tech workers, OPT is rife with fraud and abuse. In October 2020, ICE initiated Operation OPTical Illusion, a sting targeting nonimmigrant students misusing the program. ICE identified more than 1,100 OPT-enrolled foreign students who were violating the terms of the program. ICE also arrested 15 nonimmigrant students for fraudulently claiming to be working for companies that did not exist.

The OPT program also poses a national security risk. The Office of the Ombudsman of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 2020 report found OPT vulnerable to exploitation from hostile nations such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). USCIS officials concluded that the student worker scheme is constantly exploited by PRC operatives posing as students to steal intelligence, trade secrets, and technology.

This program does not serve the interests of our nation. The displacement of U.S. tech workers, the minimal government oversight to police for fraud, and the devastating national security ramifications alone should prompt federal officeholders to scrap OPT. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, President Joe Biden is unlikely to reign in this dubious program. Instead, his administration expanded OPT in November 2021 despite the scheme’s glaring issues.

If Congress and the Biden administration are serious about helping U.S. tech workers and enhancing our nation’s security, addressing the student worker scam would be a top priority. Otherwise, only more trouble will come from this problematic program.

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