Move will upend many lives, flood workplaces with cheap labor.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has requested the District Court in the District of Columbia for more time, till May 10, 2016, to review the comments received on the proposed extension of Optional Practical Training (OPT) time for F1 visa students, while keeping intact the present rules to give work permits after graduating from accredited colleges and universities in the US.
According to a prior ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle of the District of Columbia, on August 12, 2015, the DHS had to take action by February 12, 2016, to implement new rules for OPT.
If no action were to be taken by February 12, 2016, the system of giving OPT to students – which is used by students to try get a job in the US and eventually hope to be sponsored for a work visa and permanent residency – would be scrapped immediately. All foreign students after the duration of their program is over would be forced to immediately go back to the country of their origin.
That’s unlikely to happen, though.
The lure of studying in the US without any job prospects would be a handicap that most students wouldn’t want to take on; they would prefer studying in other countries instead, like Australia, UK and Canada. Without enrollment of foreign students, many universities in the US would go bankrupt, most would be badly hit financially, forced to cut staff.
The DHS has now requested the court for more time to review more than 50,000 comments it has received on the proposed move to extend OPT for students graduating with STEM degrees; plus train personnel to deal with the expected rush of OPT applications which would likely ensue.
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As I had written earlier, at present, the OPT for international students who finish either an undergraduate or graduate program from an DHS certified educational institution in the US is either 12 months – for non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related programs – or 29 months, for STEM related programs.
To help the F1 students, especially those with STEM degrees, have a better shot at job employment and continue to stay on in the US, the DHS had proposed to make it a level playing field for F1 students, and give benefits startlingly equivalent to H-1B visa holders: for as much as six years.
According to regulations proposed by the DHS last year and submitted before the Senate Judiciary Committee, students with STEM degrees can stay on in the US and work for a total of six years under OPT – three years after finishing an undergraduate program, and then if need be, another three years after a graduate program.
Also, for students graduating with non-STEM U.S. degree programs, but who have an earlier STEM degree under the belt, the work period will be good for three years. For example, a student who did an undergraduate program in IT or Physics, and then goes for an MBA, the student would be entitled for three years of OPT, based on his or her undergraduate STEM-related program. For non-STEM related programs, the time-frame for OPT would still remain 12 months.
It seems that the DHS is preparing to implement the new OPT rules of six years maximum OPT, given that they have asked time to train personnel also. If not February, it would go into effect in May of this year.
The new OPT rule will surely benefit some deserving students. However, many students are going to be exploited by unscrupulous employers. The labor market will surely be inundated by cheap labor, the like of which the US would not have seen before, especially in the IT sector.
Most employers would be happy to take on foreign graduates as employees for three full years. These students on OPT, but on full-time work basis in reality, would not be entitled to any benefits, like health insurance, sick leave or 401K. Most students who have just graduated let’s say with a degree in computer science would be happy to settle for a salary of $30,000 desperate as he or she would be to get a foothold in the industry with the hope of better prospects down the road, a work sponsorship. What would be the need for the employer to hire an American worker or an H-1B visa holder for $100,000? Many workers on higher salaries would be fired.
The carrot of an H-1B sponsorship would likely be dangled for hapless students on F-1 visa who settle for low wages. But then, many employers three years down the road would find it easier, much cheaper to just go for another round of hiring fresh student graduates as workers for $30,000 instead of spending $10,000 to sponsor a visa and then increase the salary three folds of the existing F-1 visa student on OPT. For most, it just wouldn’t make any business sense. Of course, there would be exceptions.
The exploitation of these students on OPT would be vicious and rampant. The irony and the worst part: it would have been legally sanctioned by the US government, with no penalties for employers.
The anti-immigration brigade, who cry themselves hoarse over H-1B and L1 visa workers taking away American jobs, are in for a huge shock if the DHS goes ahead with its plan to extend the OPT for six years. They might be even too paralyzed to raise a whimper of protest.
For many students, the DHS move to give 6 years of OPT is just wrong. It will upend lives, even though the intention would be to perhaps give deserving students a chance to stake roots in the country. Of course, it’s a different story that the education lobby has strived hard for the US to comply with their demands in hopes of attracting more foreign students, fatten their coffers.
Look at this way: a student who emigrate at age 19 to the US for an undergraduate degree in a STEM related field, spends three years working on OPT later. The student would be 26 years old, assuming the 4-year degree got finished on time.
Woe to the student if he or she by that time has not been able to secure a work visa. Having been inculcated with the American way of life, perhaps married or in love, with hopes of raising a family, most would prefer to stay in in the country.
Let’s say the student decides to go for a graduate program in order to prolong the stay in the US, again in a related STEM field. Upon graduation, the student avails of the next three years of OPT. By now, the student is 31 years old – if the graduate program was only two years in duration. Increase that if it’s a doctoral program.
After having spent 12 years in the US, living a life of uncertainty all the while, the student may still not be assured of a job or a life in the US, even if a visa sponsorship has been offered by a company, because of the high demand for H-1B visas and the increasingly hard lottery system to crack.
Is it fair for the US to deny that individual who has spent some of the best years of his or her adult life a right to work, live and stake roots in the country?
The US immigration system is broken to the point that nobody has a clear idea anymore how much time a person will languish in trepidation without getting a Green Card, especially in the vexatious EB-2 and EB-3 system in place. When immigration lawyers throw up their hands and say 20-30 years maybe, it’s not a joke. Just harsh reality.
Imagine, thrusting tens of thousands of students too every year in this immigration jungle which is like a maze with no exit in sight for dozens of years. It’s tantamount to cruelty. Morally wrong.
In 2008, DHS estimated that there were approximately 70,000 foreign nationals in F-1 status on OPT, and that one third of those students had earned degrees in STEM fields.
The DHS move is also the reason for it screening students from India who have got enrollment in some dubious colleges like Silicon Valley University and Northwestern Polytechnic, in California, deporting them.
Once the new DHS rule is implemented, students who graduate from accredited colleges and universities, whatever the quality of these institutions may be, or their skill levels, would be entitled to the initial work permit for the maximum of three years. They can work wherever they want, for whomsoever, at whatever salary.
Presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have all advocated increasing legal immigration, but none have spoken of how to make lives better for immigrants who are already here and in anxious wait for a Green Card. Many have bought homes, raised children. But are still unsure of their lives, not able to start businesses, contribute fully to the economy.
Congress need to put a plan in place, like giving a Green Card to an individual after 10 years of employment plus academic experience in the US, if the person has been paying taxes, been law-abiding. Rules need to be changed.
It’s just wrong to take advantage of immigrants, and thrust the American workforce into jeopardy too, with one stroke. America can, and should do, better.
(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar)