Prominent advocates of the value of the OPT program, such as Michael Crow of ASU, are also lobbying political and business leaders.
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.
However, on May 7 four influential senators have penned a letter to president Donald Trump, urging him to suspend issuing guest worker visas – including students on OPT – for at least 60 days.
“There is certainly no reason to allow foreign students to stay for three additional years just to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans”
“After 60 days we urge you to continue to suspend new non-immigrant guest workers for one year or until our national unemployment figures return to normal levels. That suspension should at a minimum include H-2B visas, H-1B visas and the OPT program,” the senators wrote.
“While the merits of such a program are subject to debate, there is certainly no reason to allow foreign students to stay for three additional years just to take jobs that would otherwise go to unemployed Americans as our economy recovers.”
In recent years there have been several efforts to curb the OPT program on the basis that it “hurts American citizens”, with the need for flexibility around the program in light of the current Covid-19 crisis put forward in a recent letter sent to DHS by NAFSA.
The valuable program – which represents a significant share of the overall international student population – is also hit by uncertainty in terms of access because of Covid-19.
The number of students in OPT rose from 203,460 in 2017/18 to 223,085 in 2018/19, a percentage increase of 9.6%.
Speaking during a Presidents’ Alliance webinar, attorney and member of the Presidents’ Alliance legal advisory council, Dan Berger, said while some the US government has provided some guidance in areas such as remote learning, information on whether students can file for OPT abroad still hasn’t been given.
“Some students left the country at spring break and never came back because of Covid-19. They’ve been taking classes [remotely], but if they’re graduating, can they apply for OPT from abroad? We don’t have guidance yet,” he told attendees.
“And I think if we don’t have guidance soon, clear guidance, then they may miss their chance to be able to get that work authorisation after graduation,” Berger added.
Reiterating the need for clarity on the OPT program, Kristie De Pena, vice president for policy and director of immigration policy at the Niskanen Center said urgent clarity from DHS on time spent unemployed was crucial.
Although many organisations have petitioned DHS to not consider the time spent unemployed during the Covid-19 emergence towards the 90 day unemployment limit, DHS said it is still evaluating that request.
“That has been outstanding for a number of weeks. The latest development from the Student Exchange Visitor Program is that they will consider students working fewer than 20 hours a week as engaged in OPT, which is a good development,” said De Pena.
“But whether they will authorise further flexibilities, grace periods for unemployment, potentially changing start dates of OPT or applications for OPT made outside the US remains to be seen.”
She added that the president’s proclamation, which suspends entry for 60 days for individuals seeking to enter the US as immigrants is rapidly approaching its 30-day point of review.
“By May 23, the secretaries of Labour, DHS and State are required to review all non-immigrant programs and recommend to the president other appropriate measures to stimulate the US economy and ensure, ‘the prioritisation, hiring and employment of US workers’,” she explained.
“This week, in fact, we saw a group of senators call for the suspension of all new non-immigrant guest workers.
“So I think that we can expect future suspensions that will be justified in some way by these claims of protecting the labour market from immigrant competition.”
But, De Pena added, “we should be comforted in some way that we know that the data is on our side”.
“We do know that scaling back or eliminating entirely the OPT program has long been on the radar of the Trump administration, and that’s again justified by the pretence that decreasing the number of foreign workers will lift the burden of unemployment from Americans moving forward.
“We know that this is not accurate,” she said.
“[Niskanen] has done some original research on OPT that indicates participants have positive effects on innovation and marginal productivity of high skilled workers and little to no effect on other economic outcomes.”
According to the research, scaling back OPT would cause the unemployment rate to rise 0.15 percentage points by 2028 and a total of 443,000 jobs would be lost in the economy, resulting in 255,000 fewer positions for native-born workers.
“So I know that’s a drop in the bucket these days, but this is critically important data for advocates and lawmakers to understand,” De Pena continued.
As a means of drumming up support for the OPT program, director of policy and communications for the Presidents’ Alliance, Jose Magaña-Salgado, said he would encourage institutions to contact their industry partners and communicate that the program “is on the chopping block”.
“We have college and university presidents – such as president Crow of Arizona State University – sending letters to the CEOs and businesses where they place OPT students actually flagging them of this potential issue and asking them to engage by weighing in with Congress and with the White House to maintain this program,” he said.
“We are definitely encouraging folks to contact their industry partners in a manner that’s similar.”
“I think that it’s really important that we have surrogates carry the message to Capitol Hill, those business interests that depend heavily on the OPT program,” added Matt Salmon, vice president of government affairs at Arizona State University.
“We need to dig down and find some of those OPT students that have gone on and done wonderful things”
“And if we severely impede our ability to bring innovators into this country, then we’re going to lose our competitive edge. I think that has to be a message that we carry forth through a lot of these policymakers that are advocating for severely diminishing OPT as well as H-1B visas.”
Salmon added that it is “incredibly important” to appeal to the human interest side as well.
“I think we really need to dig down and find some of those OPT students that have gone on and done really wonderful things such as inventions, innovations and helping out the US economy,” he added.