NEW YORK – Anti-immigration and anti-foreign worker crusaders will see red going through a new report released by the Pew Research Center, which shows that between 2004 and 2016, nearly 1.5 million F-1 visa foreign graduates of US colleges and universities obtained authorization to remain and work through the federal government’s Optional Practical Training program (OPT).
More than half (53%) of the foreign graduates approved for employment specialized in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to the Pew report. Executive actions by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had increased the length of employment from the initial 12 months, to 29 months, and then to the current 36 months, for certain STEM fields of study. The number of foreign STEM graduates participating in OPT grew by 400% since the first employment extension was introduced in 2008.
India made up the largest share of those authorized to work under the OPT program from 2004-16, with 441,400 (30% of the total) students. Students from China came second at 313,500 (21%), followed by South Koreans at 90,800 (6%), according to the report.
Educational institutions in the US have benefited: between 2008 and 2016, new college enrollments among foreign students on F-1 visas grew 104%. There was a whopping 400% increase in STEM graduates approved to temporarily work in the US on an OPT since 2008.
What’s really startling and interesting from numbers crunched by Pew is that OPT approvals actually outnumbered initial H-1B visa for skilled worker approvals in recent years. By the end of the 2004-2016 period, there were a total of 1,474,000 OPT approvals and 1,473,000 initial H-1B visa approvals. Pew had earlier reported that nearly 14%, or 118,000, of all capped H-1B visas approved between fiscal 2010 and 2016 were given to advanced degree graduates of US universities.
Critics of this flow of foreign workforce will be quick to point out unlike the H-1B visa program, which imposes an annual cap of 65,000 visas to private companies sponsoring foreign workers, there is no cap on the number of approvals available under the OPT program.
Furthermore, foreign students do not require employer sponsorship to apply for OPT, while the H-1B visa program requires employers to directly sponsor the foreign workers they intend to hire. F-1 visa students also have 20,000 H-1B visas reserved for them when companies apply on their behalf. If applicants exceed that number, then they are selected by lottery and the ones left out still get a chance in the 65,000 pool.
Some critics believe the OPT is a bigger threat than even the H-1B visa program. An earlier lawsuit by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers had argued that OPT created unfair competition for US workers because students on F-1 visas and their employers don’t pay Medicare and Social Security taxes. That it was a loophole exploited by employers to the detriment of local workers. Though the case was dismissed by a US District Court judge in April 2017, it is currently being appealed, and may find favor with the Trump administration.
The Trump administration had recently indicated that they intend to curb the wings of OPT, saying, in a statement, that they want to “reduce fraud and abuse” and “to improve protections of U.S. workers who may be negatively impacted by employment of nonimmigrant students on F and M visas.”
It’s likely that in the wake of the new Pew report, the Trump administration, which intends to shut down work permits for spouses of H-1B workers too, will take action to reduce the time span of the OPT, or make it harder to get approvals, with new rules and regulations in place. President Trump has been busy disrupting executive actions by President Obama. It’s unlikely OPT will remain unscythed, especially given the animosity by anti-immigration hardliners.
The bigger question though is the disturbing equation of approvals for OPT vs. H-1B visa. It’s clear from the numbers that’s it’s time to reform both the programs.
The Trump administration should look into the possibility of merging all classes of work visas, like H-1B, L, and J, among others, for skilled workers, to have one unified visa in place for foreign workers. They should have similar time-frame for employment and clear guidelines on applying for permanent residency. The bar for foreign workers on H-1B should also be set higher, especially with the requirement of only a degree from anywhere in the world equivalent to a four-year bachelor’s degree in the US. The skills they bring should also require a minimum salary that is above the industry standard.
Also, if the number of foreign graduates continue to increase in the US, then the administration should look into phasing out the H-1B visa with lower numbers than the 65,000 annual visas, and instead increase the reserved quota for foreign graduates, from the 20,000 in place.
It doesn’t make sense that despite OPT getting more approvals than H-1B visas, there is only a quota of 20,000 for F-1 students to get all the benefits of working in the US. In all likelihood, many F-1 students on an OPT are exploited by unscrupulous employers and staffing companies, who find a vast pool of graduates to pick and choose from every year. This loophole must be closed.
Also, it’s time the administration looked into industries and areas that really require foreign workers, and try fill that up through incentives for F-1 visa graduates in related programs. Some industries that face shortage of skilled workers include doctors in rural areas, nurses in hospitals in many states, and STEM teachers in high schools.
It would be best to create H-1B quotas based on industry need rather than a general pool, where most visas are grabbed by Indian technology service behemoths like Infosys and TCS. This will go a long way to assuage anti-immigration critics too.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)