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 last thing our nation should do…is make ourselves less competitive by weakening OPT”
However due to the pandemic, renewed efforts to curb the OPT program have been made amid turbulence in the American jobs market, with some claiming that there is little reason to allow students to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as the economy recovers.
In the letter dated June 2 addressed to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf, the members of Congress highlight that international students and their families contributed approximately $41 billion to the economy in 2018-2019 alone, despite making up just 5.5% of overall US college enrollments.
“The endurance of this tremendous economic contribution requires our nation adopt and retain policies that keep the United States competitive for new students,” it reads.
The letter also outlines the impact that global closure of US embassies and consulates have had on students hoping to schedule visa appointments and asks for clarity on how US consulates will be able to prioritise and process applications that include F-1 and J-1 visas.
“Additionally, we urge the administration to publicly clarify that OPT will remain fully intact so we send the right messages abroad about the US as an attractive destination for international students,” it explains.
“As countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, China and Australia bolster immigration policies to attract and retain international students, the last thing our nation should do in this area is make ourselves less competitive by weakening OPT.”
The number of students in OPT programs rose from 203,460 in 2017/18 to 223,085 in 2018/19, and studies have shown OPT creates – rather than takes away – employment for US citizens.
In the letter, the 21 House Republicans also address concerns that “some nations may seek to exploit certain international student programs for their benefit”.
On May 29, Trump signed a proclamation suspending the entry of some Chinese graduate students into the US to protect intellectual property.
However, “we believe there are strategic and targeted approaches to combatting those practices without weakening or suspending in full our international student programs,” the letter explains.
“We stand ready to work with your offices to ensure US visa and immigration policies function well for all who are looking to contribute… and respectfully request the administration make clear international students and scholars are encouraged to study and conduct research.”
The letter can be read in full here.