The federal government has created yet another immigration employment hurdle for U.S. science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers, according to a new report. After obtaining data through a Freedom of Information Act request, a Pew Global analysis of Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) data showed that almost 1.5 million foreign students have been allowed to stay and work in the U.S. after graduation as part of the little-known work program, the Optional Practical Training program (OPT). ICE is the federal agency that oversees, ineffectively, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.
Since 2008, the number of STEM students using OPT has increased a staggering 400 percent. In 2008, the longest period that an F-1 student visa holder could remain and work in the U.S. was one year. After executive actions in 2008 and 2016 initially doubled, to 29 months, then later tripled to 36 months, and thus extended the maximum employment duration for foreign STEM degree students, their numbers soared from 79,877 in 2008 to 257,064 in 2016.
The first extension was granted to appease Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who suggested to then Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at a dinner party that the existing 85,000 H-1B cap was inadequate. The second extension occurred during President Obama’s administration. According to Pew, F-1 visas have risen sharply, a 104 percent surge between the same period reviewed, 2008 to 2016, versus a dramatically lower 3.4 percent increase in overall college admissions.
In the name of merit-based immigration, a misnomer that immigration advocates have successfully promoted, the federal government has enthusiastically doled out millions of F-1 visas that have circuitously paved the way to good American jobs. The F-1/OPT now joins the ranks of the most abused visas and employment-based frauds that shut deserving Americans out of the labor market.
More outrageous: Through tax breaks, the federal government subsidizes U.S. corporations when they hire foreign nationals, an incentive too lucrative for most employers to ignore. Because they don’t have to pay FICA or Medicare taxes, an OTP employer gets roughly an 8.25 percent tax break that’s unavailable to him when he hires an American. This largess, which denies the Social Security Administration, Medicare and unemployment insurance coffers about $2 billion annually, is done without congressional committee debate, and therefore ultimately without congressional approval.
While OPT students, mostly from India, China and South Korea, matriculate nationwide, many upon graduation relocate to U.S. financial centers where job opportunities are more plentiful and more lucrative. Among the top ten destinations are New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., hub cities that American graduates aspire to work in as well. Some students have advanced degrees and graduate from prestigious universities, but others obtain their degrees from institutions that Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley and other critics identified as visa mills.
No shortage of talented American STEM workers exists. The annual guest worker inflow equals half of all tech hires each year at a time when U.S. colleges graduate thousands of STEM workers. Moreover, the F-1 visa and the OPT program that it spawns are light years away from their intended purpose. Developed decades ago, the original concept was that foreign students would gain U.S. work experience for a year, and then take their newly acquired skills and knowledge back to their underdeveloped home nations to help those countries advance. Not until George W. Bush’s administration did the program devolve into a guest worker scam to boost corporate profits.
Presidents Bush and Obama extended OPT through executive actions. President Trump should, on behalf of the American workers he campaigned for, end it the same way.