DHS Hides the Expanding Size of OPT Program, and Its Subsidies

By David North on December 9, 2019

I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I am beginning to suspect that the Department of Homeland Security, along with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Pew Charitable Trust, and Law360 — probably separately — do not want to write about the numbers in, or the financial impact of, the Optional Practical Training program because it is an awkward subject, one best left hidden.

There are probably more than 300,000 government-subsidized foreign workers in the OPT program, as we will show later in this report. That's a large number. But neither the media nor the government will state that bald fact.

OPT is the program that gives recent alien college grads one year of subsidized U.S. employment, extended to three years if the alien has a degree in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. The glaring lack of media attention to the subsidies in the program has been the subject of numerous CIS blog posts.

Delays in Reporting. It struck me the other day that, over and above the silence on the subsidies, calendar year 2018 closed more than 11 months ago, and DHS has yet to release any data on the number of alien workers getting subsidized jobs in the OPT program — subsidies provided by America's ailing and aging.

That's right. Each OPT worker — a former foreign student who has completed studies and graduated from a U.S. college — and his or her employer need not pay the usual payroll taxes, which, in turn support the Medicare, Social Security, and Federal-State Unemployment Insurance programs.

So employers using OPT find that if they have two equal candidates for a given job, one citizen grad and one alien grad, they can hire the alien for about 92 percent of the cost of hiring the citizen.

Many take advantage of this. So the program pays U.S. employers to hire alien workers instead of U.S. ones.

Thus we have what some apologists call a "visa extension" for these alien alumni, which has morphed into America's second largest foreign worker program, after H-1B. The media carefully avoid talking about the subsidies in the program, and who is hurt by them, and DHS for its part apparently delays their reports on the number of workers involved, and of course, never, never discusses the huge subsidies involved, in the low billions, in any of its publications.

What other agency has not reported its CY 2018 numbers by now? DHS data is available in excruciating detail for decisions made in 50 other immigration programs as of June 30, 2019.

The OPT datasets end on December 30, 2017, close to two years ago. Why is one piece of the Department, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, so much faster than another, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)?

Meanwhile, a non-government agency, the Institute for International Education, provides information on OPT program participants (which they mislabel as "students" when they are alumni). It does a survey of America's universities and colleges and secures a number of the OPT alumni each year from each institution. The IIE numbers are always, understandably, smaller than the estimates based on the government's workload data for the same period because not all colleges cooperate with the IIE survey, and because, I suspect, the very worst of the visa mills are not contacted by IIE.

Blurred Government Reporting. As is the usual practice of other government agencies (with the honorable exception of the Census Bureau), the Department of Homeland Security does not provide population counts or estimates, it the more easily-available workload data, the number of approvals of OPT applications in this case.

Not only do the data come out slowly, they arrive in a confusing manner, one that underplays the image of the size of the population. For example, the DHS data on OPT authorizations in CY 2017 are reported this way:

  • OPT: 219,635
  • STEM OPT (a subset of OPT): 60,410

So there were something like 219,000 OPT workers in 2017?

Wrong! You see, as in George Orwell's Animal Farm, some authorizations are more equal than others. A run-of-the-mill OPT authorization for an alien alumnus gives the alien one full-year of subsidized employment, but a STEM extension approval is good for two more years. So the 60,410 should be added to 219,635; this new unadjusted total (never shown by the government) is 280,045, and the concept is total person-years of authorized OPT employment.

Not all OPT approvals lead to a full year of OPT employment, however, as some of these alien workers leave the country, or leave the program (to become H-1B workers, for instance, or to marry a citizen). In addition there are some duplications, as an alien goes from one employer to another, and a there must be a handful of deaths. One assumes that DHS has these numbers but is not sharing them with the rest of us — so let's adjust for these factors by deducting an arbitrary 5 percent from the 280,045 above and we get about 266,000 for CY 2017, a period that ended nearly 24 months ago. In the table below we have used the same formula, in column three, for the years 2014 through 2018.

Two Approaches to the Number of Subsidized OPT Workers in Recent Years

Time Period Partial Population Count from the "Open Doors" Survey by the Institute of International Education (low end of range) CIS Population Estimates Based on Data from USCIS (high end of range)
School Year (SY) 2013-2014 for the Second Column and Calendar Year (CY) 2014 for the Third Column 120,287 148,000
SY 2014-2015 and CY 2015 147,498 179,000
SY 2015-2016 and CY 2016 175,695 222,000
SY 2016-2017 and CY 2017 203,462 266,000
SY 2017-2018 and CY 2018 223,085 291,000

The number in the lower right-hand corner of the table is a CIS estimate, for the year 2018, based on the 2017 ratio between the IIE data and our estimates. Note that the program has just about doubled in size over the last five years.

This is the estimated number of the OPT alien alumni, working in subsidized jobs, 291,000 in FY 2018. If the OPT population continues to grow at the 10 percent or so rate of recent years, this suggests that the 2019 number will be well over 300,000.

These are the numbers that SEVP apparently does not want anyone to see, or not just yet. Nearly one-third of a million aliens are hired with a subsidy furnished not by the taxpayers generally, but specifically by the sick and elderly.

No wonder there are those who do not want to reveal either the true, and burgeoning, size of the OPT population, or to show who amongst our citizens subsidizes these aliens and their employers.

There may be other reasons why the agency routinely does not mention the subsidies it produces for the hiring of alien workers, or why it is so slow in its release of data on the sheer size of the OPT program; if so, it should disclose them.

The writer is grateful to CIS intern Emma Cummins, for her research assistance.