ICE Masks the Huge Size of the OPT Foreign Worker Population

Misleading and conflicting numbers, published in obscure places

By David North on May 4, 2023

The Optional Practical Training program (OPT) for recent alien grads of U.S. universities is probably the second-largest foreign worker program in the U.S. (after H-1B) and it is heavily subsidized by the government, but it tries to hide these realities through five techniques:

  • It publishes misleading numbers on the size of the program. In its newly released annual report entitled “SEVIS by the Numbers”, it says on p. 2 of the summary: “There were 117,301 pre- and post-completion optional practical training (OPT) students,” with no hint that this deals with only one of the three OPT sub-programs.
  • It publishes three conflicting total numbers for 2022 of these student and alumni workers, in different places, with no explanation, as we describe below.
  • Unlike in the past, the Biden administration does not publish the numbers of Optional Practical Training Program workers by their largest employers.
  • It never mentions that an employer of OPT workers gets an 8 percent subsidy by not contributing via payroll taxes to our bedraggled federal trust funds for Social Security, Medicare, and the federal unemployment insurance programs — i.e., OPT employers, including many fat-cat ones, get a bonus for not hiring American workers and that bonus is funded by our elderly, our sick, and our unemployed.
  • Similarly, it always writes about the OPT workers as students, when most of them are alien alumni of U.S. universities, many of them two years or more out of college.

Is this statistical mess that we have just described simply a matter of bureaucratic incompetence and laziness, or is it deliberate, or some combination? The result is that a huge and heavily subsidized foreign worker program never authorized by Congress and beloved by employers is never described as what is really is. That cannot be a coincidence.

Regarding the numbers, there is some room for confusion as there are some overlaps among the three sub-programs regarding these foreign workers. USCIS prints various numbers, some of which it totals, and some not, and it never seeks to explain the differences.

As background, the three parts of OPT deal with three stages in the life of foreign students who want to become U.S. workers.

There is first Curricular Practical Training, which consists of student employment while the alien is in college; all alien students, save those in their freshman year of a BA or BS program, are eligible for CPT.

The next stage is the main OPT program, which offers subsidized jobs for all alien grads with a new degree for one year; grads getting subsequent degrees, usually master’s, get another year of subsidized employment for each new degree.

The third stage is that after the first year ends if the alien has, as many of them do, a degree in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, or math, she gets two more years of OPT coverage; with additional STEM degrees, one gets still more years of OPT subsidies. Some aliens have multiple master’s degrees as a result. Still others, in large numbers, move on to jobs with the H-1B program.

Needless to say, no employer is paid a dime to hire new citizen college grads, but all OPT employers and many OPT workers are excused from paying the usual federal payroll taxes.

But how many OPT workers are there? The annual report, and links to it, provide these three totals for 2022 (using the author’s totals when the report lacks them):

  • The summary of the report, as noted above: 117,301;
  • One of the links (link A): 486,134; and
  • Another link (B): 301,484

Only the first number is in the current annual report.

Can you imagine a corporate financial report, dealing with the firm’s profits, coming up with three widely different profit margins, one four times the size of another one? Maybe the Student and Visitor Exchange Program, SEVP, an arm of ICE, needs to hire a CPA.

The higher numbers probably should be shaved a bit, to cover either counted overlaps or estimated ones. SEVP either could tell its computers to count the overages, or it could estimate them, but it has failed to do so. Why clarify things we do not want to talk about?

We have given a citation for the first number. Link A can be found (after much searching) here, while Link B is here.

The total number of foreign students, including some in the K-12 grades (a small group) rose by about 10 percent in 2022 from the prior year, reaching a total of 1,362,157. Most of them are not working, or at least not working legally.