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US: Thousands of int’l students may have overstayed their visas

Thousands of international students may have overstayed their US visas by misusing the country’s Optional Practical Training program, according to an investigation

An investigation has found that thousands of international students may have misused the US OPT program. Photo: Pexels/Element5 Digital.

The companies in question employed more than 5,500 students through the program in 2017

An extension of an international student’s visa, OPT allows graduates to work in an area related to their study for a total of 12 months, or longer if they have a STEM degree.

“The existing national security infrastructure is designed to catch bad actors”

However, the month-long investigation found that a handful of suspicious companies with unclear business dealings and virtually no online footprints were employing students through OPT. 

The 14 companies in question employed more than 5,500 students through the program in 2017, according to ICE records. 

“Higher education institutions take extensive measures to comply with federal requirements”

“There are always people who want to exploit legal immigration,” Rachel Canty, Student and Exchange Visitor Program director, said.

Canty, told NBC Bay Area that “there’s always a risk” when people tell authorities they are doing something other than what they have said they are.

“That is why we look at the companies very carefully. That’s why we do data analytics and that’s why we do investigations,” Canty added.

NBC Bay Area began its investigation following the arrest of Chinese national Weiyun “Kelly” Huang,  the CEO of a company called Findream.

An indictment filed in federal court told how Huang allegedly used two companies, Findream and Sinocontech, to provide fake employment documents for more than 2,500 students with F-1 visas.

Huang is accused of using this scheme to make more than US$2 million from students paying for falsified employment records.

Following the indictment, NBC Bay Area used OPT data and corporate records to identify 12 more suspected shell companies.

It found the companies shared a common set of traits including unreachable corporate officers, an OPT workforce comprised of 99% Chinese nationals and corporate headquarters based at either single-family homes, luxury residential high-rises or shared workspaces.

However, the report notes that while there is evidence of possible abuse, the cases represent less than 3% of the students who participated in OPT in 2017.

“The existing national security infrastructure is designed to catch bad actors, and higher education institutions take extensive measures to comply with federal requirements,” Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director, public policy at NAFSA told The PIE News. 

The importance of the OPT program to the US was highlighted by American Council on Education vice president, global engagement, Brad Farnsworth.

“We really are experiencing a rapidly globalised market of international students, where the UK, Canada, the US and Australia are all competing for students,” he told The PIE.

“We are all trying to make ourselves as attractive as possible. I think that is a good thing for international students- the more choice the better.

“But we do know that international students very much value professional and practical experience in the country where they are studying either during or following graduation and that is specifically why OPT was designed in the US.

“The total number of students in the US still looks pretty good but that is largely owing to more students participating in OPT”

“I do know anecdotally that this makes a tremendous difference when students are selecting a country and an institution for study,” he added.

Farnsworth said that if there was a significant curtailing of OPT it would “dramatically” affect the numbers of international students who come to the US.

“If you look at the Open Doors report that came out in the late fall… what we are seeing is a real softening of students entering the pipeline in the US,” he said.

Farnsworth said that the numbers of international students have been dropping for several years which he put down to global competition.

“What we’re seeing if you look at the overall number of students in the US, that number is holding quite firm at over one million.

“That is because the students stay in the US longer. If you imagine a pipeline, entering at one end are new students, [and] those numbers are declining, but at the same time, we have students staying in the US longer to do OPT.

“So the total number of students in the US still looks pretty good but that is largely owing to more students participating in OPT.”

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