Pew Research Shows How OPT Undercuts American Workers

By Dan Cadman on May 25, 2017

In March the White House issued a press release, "President Trump Delivers on Jobs for the American People", that cited his progress in making good on his campaign promise to bring jobs to American workers. The release observes, "As a candidate, Mr. Trump promised 'I am going to bring back the jobs that have been stripped away from you and your country.'"

There does seem to be some progress, but what if his administration could free up thousands of jobs practically with the stroke of a pen (no need for a phone, folks), simply by undoing another one of the abysmal programs twisted out of recognition by his predecessors? He can.

The Pew Research Center has issued a report called, aptly, "More foreign grads of U.S. colleges are staying in the country to work", and thanks to its author, Neil Ruiz, we find a host of factoids about how the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for foreign students ballooned under the Obama administration, as the result of rules apparently put in place at the end of the Bush administration.

The facts assembled in this report tell us, among other things, that "The annual number of OPT approvals rose from 28,497 in fiscal 2008 to 136,617 in fiscal 2014, a nearly fivefold increase." (Emphasis added.)

What's more, "Nearly as many people are approved for the OPT program as receive H-1B visas. ... From fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2014, 768,214 H-1B visas were awarded, compared with 696,914 OPT approvals." (Emphasis added.) Think of it this way: Between the two programs, that represents nearly 1.5 million jobs farmed out to nonimmigrant aliens in a four-year span.

Although nominally OPT jobs are temporary, as the report notes, they can last up to 29 months — more than two years. Many Americans work on yearly contracts; many have no contracts at all. What un- or under-employed American who recently graduated from college wouldn't want a shot at these jobs, many of which are in well-paid technical fields?

What's more, whether the jobs are truly temporary is open to serious question, because the report also tells us that "Many of those working in the U.S. under the OPT program go on to apply for H-1B visas to stay longer in the U.S."

Companies heavily reliant on H-1B visas would tell you that they use them for lack of a pool of American candidates to work the jobs, but that assertion is at odds with the many instances we have seen where American workers are pink-slipped and required to train their foreign replacements or lose their severance packages. That scenario also isn't the full story, which has a lot to do with hiring foreign replacements who are willing to work for significantly less than Americans. That was true in 2015, when Sens. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill to reform the H-1B program, and it's true today, because it sits fat, squalid, unreformed, and subject to the same abuses as when they started their effort.

Considered all together, what we see from the facts in this report are the makings of a giant slot system manipulated by employers seeking cheap labor on a long-term basis: Start alien workers in OPT, move them to H-1B after their 29 months is up, and ultimately try to shove them into green card status through the highly permeable labor certification process.

President Trump can begin the reforms right at the beginning where the abuse starts. Issue significant regulatory reforms — no congressional action needed — to Optical Practical Training, and then ally with the bipartisan coalition of senators and representatives who are willing to take on legislative amendment of the H-1B process.

The president has already made a good start by issuing his Executive Order (EO), "Buy American and Hire American", which proclaims "In order to create higher wages and employment rates for workers in the United States, and to protect their economic interests, it shall be the policy of the executive branch to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad." The EO specifically singles out the H-1B program. Regulatory reform is as good a place to begin as any, although in the end the statute on which it's based will also need to be re-thought.

But OPT must not be ignored. It's past time for the federal government to stop undercutting American workers, and to reestablish rigor in its oversight of foreign students from beginning to end. This, too, would be consistent with the president's EO.