Nearly 1.6 million international university students were enrolled in the U.S., according to the most recent data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Of the 1.6 million, 328,205 participated in Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows foreign-born students to work in U.S. jobs, ostensibly to obtain hands-on work experience in their chosen fields.
To its critics, however, the OPT program represents a bridge to the H-1B visa and, eventually, to a green card and U.S. citizenship. Along the way, OPTs permanently displace American tech workers. And American college students from employment.
The big winners in international enrollments are the universities that collect full freight, out-of-state tuition. As The Wall Street Journal explained in a 2018 story, “Program Allowing Foreign Students to Work Has Grown Rapidly,” U.S. colleges “have used the prospect of at least short-term postgraduate employment as a way to appeal to foreign students…doing away with the program would certainly be a big hit to schools.”
Other winners include the students themselves who hope to parlay their advanced degrees into high-paying U.S. jobs in tech or other industries. Tech employers who use OPT to circumnavigate the 85,000 annual H-1B cap, and thus keep their cheap labor pool stocked, also are winners. A report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics found that all of the (STEM) science, tech, engineering and math employment growth went to overseas workers.
Big losers include college hopefuls found among the 4 million U.S. high school students who graduate each year. Incoming freshman slots are a fixed number; every international student that fills a university seat lowers the admission odds for U.S. high school diploma-holders and reduces the number of U.S. children receiving scholarships for STEM study. Also coming out on the short end are American tech workers whose jobs are given to OPTs.
Other occupations are vulnerable too. Along with the B tourist visa, the F and M visas often spawn illegal immigration. Tourists and students enter legally, but when their visas expire, many overstay, provide employers with falsified personal information on their I-9 forms, and are hired. Overstaying rarely has consequences since the Department of Homeland Security openly admitted to Congress that it doesn’t look for, let alone track, those who stay beyond their visas’ expiration date.
The State Department’s F and M student visas enable soaring international admissions. Since these visas have no numerical limit, more overseas students will continue to arrive into the foreseeable future. The total has grown quantum leaps and bounds to today’s 1.6 million. Nearly half the student population today comes from China and India; other sending nations predominantly include South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Japan.
Here’s a prime illustration of the foreign student influx, looking at just one school. In her book, “Billions Lost: The American Tech Crisis and the Road Map to Change,” Hilarie T. Gamm wrote that in the 2016-2017 academic year, of MIT’s 2,876 graduate students, 51 percent were from Asia, primarily China and India. During the same period, MIT, known for its STEM graduate programs, had less than 10 percent American STEM students enrolled in tech PhD programs.
“More” always drives the immigration debate. The U.S., or so the routinely debunked pro-immigration arguments go, always needs more. America needs more legal immigration, we’re told, because the nation is growing older; universities need more diverse students, and the tech industry needs more employment-based visas.
But everything – except, that is, for bad immigration laws that hurt American citizens – has limits. Worth noting is that the first of what would morph into three OPT work permission extensions, from 12 to 29 to 36 months, was negotiated during cocktail party chit chat between DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. Americans could not have been more completely shut out of the good old boys’ process.
Congress should impose a cap on foreign students that’s consistent with maintaining a reasonable international presence in American higher education, but that doesn’t shut out qualified U.S. workers and deserving high school graduates.