WASHINGTON, D.C. — A fast-growing foreign-student work program is taking jobs from U.S. citizens, while its “alarming mismanagement” poses a national security threat, critics charge.
“Foreign students, sometimes aided by school officials, are currently abusing the Optional Practical Training program to acquire unauthorized employment in the United States,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, citing a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
“The federal government does not know where tens of thousands of foreign students in the OPT program are located, who they are working for, or what they are doing while in the United States,” the Iowa Republican said.
OPT enables some 560,000 foreign students to obtain temporary work in their major area of study during and after completing academic programs here.
Grassley requested the GAO investigation amid complaints of employers hiring foreign students and passing over American citizens.
Beyond that, “The GAO report reveals extensive and alarming mismanagement by the Department of Homeland Security, proving serious program integrity issues that bring to light potential risks to national security,” Grassley added.
“OPT is at risk for fraud and noncompliance, in part, because it enables eligible foreign students to work in the United States for extended periods without obtaining a temporary work visa,” said Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents interviewed by GAO acknowledged that “foreign students approved for OPT present a risk for becoming overstays because they are allowed to work and remain in the United States for 12 to 31 months after graduation from school.”
Only 2.6 percent of OPT applicants were denied in 2013. Over the past six years, just 0.06 percent had their OPT status revoked, as participant numbers grow annually.
OPT regulations allow unlimited numbers of foreign students to work as “candidate H-1B workers,” directly competing with qualified Americans, according to the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
In a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson last week, Grassley called for a moratorium on OPT “until you can personally certify that the program is secure and that the department can locate all foreign students with OPT authorization.”
David North, a policy analyst with the enforcement-oriented Center for Immigration Studies, said GAO “only scratched the surface.”
“There’s a major reason for worrying about U.S. employers getting a huge bonus for hiring (OPT students) over citizen or greencard workers,” North noted.
“There are no payroll taxes for up to 27 months with the OPT workers, on either the worker or the employer. It works out, over the full length of time at an average estimated salary, to a bonus of $10,000 per such hire.
“And all that money is taken away from the Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance trust funds.”
Additionally, North suggested instances where OPT and the controversial federal EB-5 investor-visa program could coincide.
“There could be the rare case in which an EB-5 funded entity hires an OPT,” North told Watchdog.org. “Both the OPT benefit for the employer and the EB-5 benefit for the developer are financial breaks for small groups of U.S. businesses funded through the immigration process.”
Chris Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said OPT has “no connection to EB-5.”
Yet North sees similarities, and synergy, in working the immigration system.
“Both EB-5 — for the rich — and OPT — for the well-educated — are immigration breaks for advantaged groups of aliens. Both are instances in which ‘Them’s that have, get.’”
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at email@example.com or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward