The Biden Administration Wants to Expand the Controversial OPT Program

OPT pays employers to hire recent alien college grads rather than recent U.S. grads

By David North on January 23, 2022

The U.S. has a little-known program that gives employers substantial cash benefits if they shoulder aside recent citizen college grads and hire non-immigrant alien college grads instead.

This program, which does not have an ounce of congressional authorization, is called Optional Practical Training (OPT); both the government and, sadly, the media never mention the subsidies that employers get when they hire alien OPT workers instead of Americans.

The subsidy is that the employer (and most of the alien workers) do not have to pay the payroll taxes that the rest of us do, the taxes that fund our Social Security, Medicare, and federal unemployment insurance programs. The tax breaks for employers who discriminate in favor of aliens, rather than U.S. workers, come to about $4,000 a year per worker. That is an estimate based on a little over 8 percent tax break on an average wage of $50,000 a year; the subsidy can be much higher for better-paid workers.

You might think that an administration that is rhetorically supportive of U.S. workers would abolish the program, as it could with a stroke of the pen, but no. We now find that the Biden administration wants to increase the size of it by redefining its terms. That this is to be done at the expense of the elderly, the sick, and the unemployed somehow does not get mentioned.

Immigration generally works to increase the number of workers, and thus to indirectly lower wages for those citizens with the same skills as the migrants. The OPT program’s impact is much more direct. It takes specific jobs away from recent citizen college grads, on a one-by-one basis, and then it is subsidized by the least powerful of us as it rewards employers for not hiring Americans. It is clearly the worst part of a broken immigration system.

How does OPT work, and how does the administration plan to expand it? The proverbial weeds are pretty thick here, and administrative definitions play a key role.

Back in the Bush II administration, as my colleague John Miano has told us, the then-new Department of Homeland Security decided to create yet another foreign worker program by simply (and drastically) re-defining a “student” by saying that an alien graduate of an American university, for the three years following graduation, is still a student. This meant, under existing law, that neither the student nor the student’s employer had to shoulder the usual payroll taxes.

They then broke up the three years of subsidized work into two categories; the first year covered all alien grads and the following two years covered only those who had college degrees in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. At the end of the three years, with neither the employer nor the worker paying into the trust funds, the funds had (given $50,000 a year salaries) been deprived of $24,000 or so per worker. There are perhaps 200,000 or so such workers at any one time, though DHS data on this point are more than a little fuzzy.

What DHS has just done is to add a bit to the fields that create the second and third years of OPT. DHS has found 22 new occupations that it wants to add to the existing list of STEM occupations. The new fields have been defined by the National Center for Educational Statistics and include such sensible additions as cloud computing and such exotic ones as “anthrozoology”, which relates to the interaction of humans and animals, and animal training.

If you are an alien working in a circus, teaching tigers to jump through a ring, and have such a degree, you, too, can work in a subsidized job.

These additions will not, however, make much difference in terms of the number of jobs lost by Americans, and I regard its publication in the Federal Register on January 21 as a symbol of how the administration treats the program, generally, and how it seeks to expand migration at every conceivable opportunity, no matter how obscure.

What should be done to open up jobs for American college grads, yet keep some of the best and the brightest alien ones, is to shrink the OPT program by confining it to aliens who are in the top half of their graduating classes in the top 100 or 200 American colleges and universities. The subsidy, of course, should be removed at the same time.

The current OPT program can be used to subsidize jobs that go to an alien who has just managed to scrape through some marginal, unaccredited, for-profit college, as it makes a similar subsidy for a Phi Beta Kappa grad of one of our best universities.

While OPT makes no distinctions between brilliant students and duds, it does notice the variable of U.S. citizenship:

No citizens need apply.