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US: New ICE unit will ensure Optional Practical Training compliance

The new unit to oversee employment compliance in OPT programs. Photo: Pexels

"The first report will be published by July 31, 2021"

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 unit will identify any evidence of unlawful practices within the OPT programs”

In a statement the DHS said that The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (a program within US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has determined that it must take “bold action” to ensure that OPT programs operate in a way that does not harm US workers or foreign student employees. 

SEVP says that it is currently unable to evaluate the impact OPT has had on US workers and foreign students who have obtained work authorisation through the programs. 

“Recently, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement discussed strategies with subject matter experts at the US Department of Labor and US Citizenship and Immigration Services aimed at fulfilling SEVP’s regulatory requirements,” the DHS said in a statement. 

“Under the two-year OPT extension, the duties, hours, and compensation of a foreign student who participates in the program must be commensurate with terms and conditions applicable to the employer’s similarly situated US workers.”

The OPT Employment Compliance Unit will “be dedicated full-time to compliance matters involving wage, hours, and compensation within OPT, the OPT extension, and Curricular Practical Training”, the DHS added.  

The unit will publish an annual report on its compliance findings, which will include detailed information on duties, hours, and compensation of OPT workers. The first report will be published on ICE.gov by July 31, 2021. 

As well as publishing this data the unit will also be responsible for recommending investigations of employers and students, as needed, to Homeland Security Investigations to make sure that the OPT programs operate lawfully. 

“The unit will identify any evidence of unlawful practices within the OPT programs and notify the appropriate authorities,” the statement said.  

“For example, if the unit were to detect evidence that an employer is using OPT in a discriminatory manner (e.g., as a means to hire only foreign nationals, or only individuals of certain nationalities to the exclusion of others), or in a manner that negatively impacts wages, this unit may notify DOL and the US Department of Justice of such evidence.” 

“[The unit] will also be responsible for recommending investigations of employers and students”

OPT has been the subject of much debate in 2020. In May four influential senators wrote a letter to president Donald Trump, urging him to suspend issuing guest worker visas – including students on the program. 

The senators urged the president to suspend new non-immigrant guest workers for one year or until US national unemployment figures returned to normal levels.

Some argued that students should not take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as the economy recovers after the Covid-19 pandemic.

However these efforts to curb OPT were met with resistance, with 21 members of Congress urging support for the program, saying that it ensures the US can “attract, educate, and engage with the best and brightest students” from across the world.

In its statement the DHS said that SEVP is ready to advance its regulatory pledge to protect US workers and ensure that the OPT programs do not harm foreign students or the labor market.

“The loss of employment many US workers have faced since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as employers lay off significant portions of their workforce (while still, in some cases, seeking to hire more foreign workers), makes this work particularly timely,” the statement said. 

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