Next Trump Immigration Target: OPT For International Students
Stuart Anderson Senior Contributor
Despite the peril facing U.S. universities and America’s difficulty in attracting international students, the Trump administration may impose new restrictions on students who want to work in the United States after graduation on Optional Practical Training (OPT). New measures also could be aimed at students from China, by far the largest source of international students for U.S. universities.
On April 22, 2020, the Trump administration issued a presidential proclamation suspending the entry of most new immigrants for at least 60 days and ordered a 30-day review to recommend new restrictions on temporary visa holders.
In an April 27, 2020, radio interview with Brian Kilmeade, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf indicated Optional Practical Training is an administration target. Kilmeade asked about Sen. Tom Cotton’s argument that Chinese students should be banned from studying in technical fields in America because they go back to China with that knowledge.
“From a Department of Homeland Security perspective, we’re certainly very concerned about the number of visa programs that Chinese students can use to come into the country and study and stay, and eventually work,” said Wolf. “We see some of these programs have been potentially abused in the past. This is work that’s been well underway at the Department. I know Sen. Cotton is very outspoken about China and his concerns. The Department has also been on this issue for a period of time as well. Again, we’ll have a series of recommendations that we’ll be teeing up and some of those could include students on what we call . . . OPT and CPT, Optional Practical Training, and a lot of those are utilized by Chinese students who could potentially stay here and work. So, yes, it is a concern that the Department’s highlighted as well.”
Efforts to place new restrictions on Chinese students and Optional Practical Training may be an effort to seize on the coronavirus crisis to enact long-standing policy goals, just as the presidential proclamation contained nearly identical provisions on legal immigration to those of a White House-designed bill that the U.S. Senate rejected in February 2018. In 2015, Stephen Miller, now the chief architect of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, helped draft a bill (S. 2394) for Senators Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz that would have eliminated Optional Practical Training and prohibited almost all international students from working in the United States after receiving a degree unless they first worked 10 years outside the country.
In 2018, the Financial Times reported the Trump administration considered banning all Chinese students from the United States. “Stephen Miller, a White House aide who has been pivotal in developing the administration’s hardline immigration policies, pushed the president and other officials to make it impossible for Chinese citizens to study in the U.S.,” according to the newspaper.
Chinese students may be targeted to help the administration deflect criticism of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed over 68,000 lives in America. “Retaliating” against China is part of an election year strategy, reports Politico.
Contrary to Sen. Cotton’s argument that most Chinese students return to China, National Science Foundation data show that 90% of Ph.D.’s from China in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields remain in the United States 10 years after they receive their degrees. Limiting OPT would encourage more Chinese students to fly back to China after completing their studies in America, which has been a goal of the Chinese government.
For most of the Trump presidency, restricting or eliminating Optional Practical Training, including in STEM fields, has been on the regulatory agenda. Optional Practical Training permits international students to work in the U.S. for 12 months or an additional 24 months in a STEM-related job, usually after graduation. Trump administration officials have favored other restrictions on international students, including a proposal to eliminate “duration of status” for students, which universities argue would increase uncertainty by requiring new approvals from government adjudicators for students simply to stay and continue studying.
Complicating the administration’s push against OPT is the economic case for maintaining or even expanding Optional Practical Training. Business Roundtable partnered in a study with the Interindustry Forecasting Project at the University of Maryland and analyzed the effects of restricting OPT. “Contrary to claims that immigrants displace American workers, scaling back OPT would cause the unemployment rate to rise 0.15 percentage points by 2028, a further illustration that immigration increases job opportunities for native-born workers overall,” the study found. (Emphasis added.) The administration based the presidential proclamation on the premise that reducing immigration would lower the unemployment rate.
“A total of 443,000 jobs would be lost in the economy by 2028, resulting in 255,000 fewer positions for native-born workers,” concluded the study. “The modeled results echo myriad prior studies illustrating that employment in the United States is not a zero-sum game: Foreign-born workers actually create jobs for native-born workers rather than displace them. Legal immigrants are new consumers in the U.S. economy, and the increase in total spending creates new jobs. Furthermore, foreign-born workers help businesses acquire the skills and talent they need, which allows businesses to expand and hire additional workers.”
Similarly, Madeline Zavodny, an economics professor at the University of North Florida, examined nearly a decade of data on OPT and concluded, “The results indicate that the OPT program does not reduce job opportunities for American workers in STEM fields.”
Zavodny, formerly an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, discovered international students are associated with lower unemployment rates among U.S. STEM workers. She examined the impact of foreign students on U.S. STEM workers through labor market analyses that included degree, occupation and geographic area, and looked at data that covered a 9-year period (2008 to 2016) on international students with STEM majors approved for OPT and STEM OPT.
The study for the National Foundation for American Policy found:
“There is no evidence that foreign students participating in the OPT program reduce job opportunities for U.S. workers. Instead, the evidence suggests that U.S. employers are more likely to turn to foreign student workers when U.S. workers are scarcer.
“The relative number of foreign students approved for OPT is negatively related to various measures of the unemployment rate among U.S. STEM workers. A larger number of foreign students approved for OPT, relative to the number of U.S. workers, is associated with a lower unemployment rate among those U.S. workers.
“Analysis of the data shows unemployment rates are lower in areas with larger numbers of foreign students doing OPT as a share of workers in STEM occupations. Comparisons at the state level likewise show a negative relationship.”
Zavodny reviewed the economic literature. “Areas with more foreign-born STEM workers have higher patenting rates, faster productivity growth and higher earnings among U.S. natives, among other positive outcomes,” she concluded. “The OPT program is an important way for the U.S. to attract and retain foreign talent. STEM workers are essential to continued robust economic growth, and other countries have stepped up their attempts to recruit them. The OPT program is a small but important way the United States attracts STEM students and enables them to contribute to the U.S. economy after graduation.”
Countries around the world are competing for the most valuable of all resources – human capital. Canada, Australia and other countries already make it easier than the United States for international students to work after graduation. The number of international students from India studying at Canadian universities rose from 76,075 in 2016 to 172,625 in 2018, an increase of 127%, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
The Trump administration faces a challenge in curtailing or eliminating Optional Practical Training. The economic case for encouraging international students to come to America is strong, while the argument for restricting such students and their ability to work in the United States is weak.