Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions plan to end OPT for F-1 visa students, restrict H-1B visa

The dangers of a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz presidency.

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By Sujeet Rajan

Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK: Foreign workers hoping to be employed in the US on an H-1B visa and foreign students who plan to study in the US on an F-1 visa, with hope of working in the country upon graduation, could be in for a rude shock if GOP presidential nominee frontrunner and businessman Donald Trump or even Texas Sen. Ted Cruz assumes office in the White House: plans are afoot to restrict and immobilize the H-1B program, as well as eliminate the Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization for students upon graduation.

Numerous bills to either expand or curb work visas, like the H-1B program, have been introduced for years and decades in the US Congress. Most die either in the Senate or House. If it advances through either, mostly it fails to muster bipartisan support in the other.

RELATED: Will Donald Trump clamp down on H-1B visas?

Rep. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the chair of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, who introduced ‘The American Jobs First Act of 2015’ – along with Cruz – in December, became the first incumbent US Senator to endorse Trump for President, on Sunday.

Sessions was first seen alongside Trump at a rally last summer in Alabama. He was since then rumored to be advising Trump on key immigration issues. Sessions is one of the top Republican hawks against illegal immigration, and an advocate of protecting American jobs.

At a rally in Madison, Alabama, this past Sunday, where Sessions endorsed Trump, two former Disney World workers from Florida who were laid off and replaced by workers on H-1B visa, also spoke of their travails and lambasted the H-1B program, with Trump listening and looking on.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump
Presidential candidate Donald Trump

The bill introduced in December by Sessions and Cruz – which the latter supported also in an effort to get rid of the tag of him being pro-H-1B program earlier; even proposing to increase by 500% the number of such visas granted annually – imposes tall and harsh conditions on US employers before they can employ a worker on an H-1B visa. It also calls to end the popular OPT, a mainstay of academic programs for foreign students, for F1 visa students.

Some of the laws proposed in the bill:

  • Pay an H-1B worker either what an American worker who did identical or similar work made two years prior to the recruiting effort, or minimum salary of $110,000, whichever is higher. The minimum wage would be adjusted annually for inflation.
  • Those who qualify for an H-1B visa should have an advanced degree, and would require certification from university and be in accordance with academic standards in the US.
  • Prohibit H-1B workers from paying penalties to their employers for leaving a job before the end of a contract date.
  • Prohibit employers from requiring an H-1B worker to pay fees for housing, vehicular transportation, among others.
  • A ‘layoff cool-off period of two years, preventing an employer from bringing in an H-1B worker within 730 days of a strike, layoff, furlough or other involuntary employee terminations.
  • ‘Real-time online updating’ of H-1B applications and usage.
  • Eliminate the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT), which provides a means to work via a F-1 student visa in the US.
  • Prohibit employment authorization document (EAD) to anyone on student visa or F-1 status (who is no longer engaged in full time study) under the OPT program or a successor program, “without an express Act of Congress authorizing such a program.”

Cruz has also made it apparent in past statements that he, along with Sessions, plan to immobilize, place a moratorium on the H-1B program, till an investigation is conducted on companies who hire workers on visas.

“We (with Sessions) designed this together really to work in concert with what I have announced which is if I’m elected president I intend to impose a moratorium on the H-1B program and audit every company that has received this visas to determine whether they’re abusing the program. And if they’re abusing the program, they will be suspended from the program—and if they’ve violated the law, they will be prosecuted,” said Cruz, in a statement.

Cruz has said that the bill is “to prevent employers from using the program to replace hard-working American men and woman with cheaper foreign labor.”

If Trump or Cruz were to become president, they don’t even need this bill to go through Congress. Both Trump and Cruz are reportedly hugely unpopular on Capitol Hill. They are unlikely to muster bipartisan support for their measures. But they don’t need to. They could use executive power to make this bill, and any other they wish to, a reality, once they have the power of the presidential pen.

However, the ramifications of the bill introduced by Sessions and Cruz goes beyond just imposing restrictions on H-1B visa employment. It strikes at the very heart of the curriculum developed by universities and educational institutions in the US to attract foreign students, retain the best of them to work and for students to gain permanent residency in the US over a period of time.

Ted Cruz (Courtesy of his Twitter profile)
Ted Cruz (Courtesy of his Twitter profile)

Apart from the fact that a majority of the foreign students – especially those who pay tuition fees in full for a degree and other related expenses – would not invest the exorbitant amount for a 2-year or a 4-year degree program without assurance of the opportunity of some job experience thereafter or prospects of long-term employment, the bill would shut out majority of non-STEM students from being employed. The salary requirement of $110,000 minimum is not likely to be met for a fresh graduate in the arts or humanities fields of study.

It would mean most students finish their programs and then return immediately back to their home country. Students wanting a degree in some cutting edge technology and MBA studies may still think it beneficial, but most others would rather go to more welcoming nations with better job prospects like Canada or Australia, and in Europe.

There is at present a separate quota of 20,000 H-1B visas annually, apart from the 65,000 H-1B visas, specifically for foreign graduates of US universities. However, with the clause of advanced degrees being inserted into the language of the bill, an undergraduate degree would not suffice to apply for visas in that quota. Only those with masters degrees or higher would be in contention.

Interestingly, the OPT program is at present in the process of being amended and extended by the Obama administration. Initially good for a period of 12 months, the OPT for F-1 students – the ability to work anywhere in the country for any employer who wishes to hire them, with no salary restrictions – was extended in 2008 to 29 months for STEM students. It has now been extended to 36 months for STEM students. For non-STEM students it’s still 12 months. However, a lawsuit may yet see impediments to these changes.

Sessions has said in the past that the OPT for F-1 visa students is “a backdoor method for replacing American workers.”

Indian IT service companies like Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Cognizant, among others, would also be hard hit by the provisions of the bill by Sessions and Cruz. It would be a game changer for them. Not only would it hit their bottom line hard, it would make them rethink and put in place new strategies in the long run for North America.

The pertinent question for now is: will Trump or Cruz become the next president of the US?

(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar. Follow him @SujeetRajan1)