Meet the 'OPT-ables', a Newly Recognized Illegal Alien Work Force

By David North on April 29, 2020

As a byproduct of our grumbles about how Homeland Security reports data on the Optional Practical Training program, we have discovered a newly defined illegal alien sub-population.

We call the members of it the "OPT-ables" because, while they are eligible for the OPT program, they are either not in the appropriate OPT job or are not reporting that they are. There are perhaps 200,000 of them: all young; all recent college graduates, often from India or China; and all taking jobs that could be filled by citizen college graduates.

The population consists of recent alien graduates of U.S. colleges and universities (thus reasonably well-paid in most cases) who have received permission (via an employment authorization document (EAD)) to work for an OPT employer, but who have either not taken that job, or have done so without reporting back to DHS that they have the job in question.

If one has an EAD for working for a given employer, and does not work for that employer, or has not reported appropriately, then one is (at least nominally) in illegal status. Some of these aliens have simply failed to report what they are doing, while an unknown group of others may be in another form of legal presence or be illegally in the country.

There are significant definitional challenges in this field, as the following background information indicates.

The Optional Practical Training program, created by the Bush II administration, and preserved by subsequent ones, has no legislative authorization. It gives one year of legal and subsidized employment to all alien college graduates who file for it; and for those with science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) majors, two additional years, for a total of three years. These jobs are subsidized by the government. The subsidy consists of non-payment of the usual payroll taxes by both the employer and the OPT worker.

A would-be OPT worker secures a promise of a job from an employer, then turns around and secures a DHS-issued document, the EAD, and then either works for that employer, or does not; in the latter case we regard them as OPT-ables.

OPT-ables fall into several subcategories. Many have only reporting failures, while we believe others are working in a different job in the U.S. economy, different from the one they are permitted to hold. Smaller numbers may have decided to seek a new degree; returned to their home country; moved into another legal immigration status, such as by marriage; moved to another country; or remained unemployed in the States. Small numbers may have been deported or died. Given the general lack of supervision in this program and the opacity of the reporting, it is hard enough to determine how many OPT-ables there are, generally, much less the size of the various subpopulations. But let's try to get as good a picture as we can.

We assume from the DHS table that follows, that the total number of OPT and STEM OPT workers who reported their employment in 2018 was 200,162.

The 200,162, for the year 2018, is defined by DHS as "Total SEVIS IDs w/OPT". We assume, given the size of the numbers, that these were alumni (not students) who met the definition above.

The problem — perhaps both a statistical problem and a real policy one — is that another set of DHS data, with a different definition, shows a much larger OPT worker population. The larger number of those "with authorizations to participate" in the same year can be drawn from the following DHS table.

This population can be defined as the number of aliens walking around with EADs at the moment when DHS pulled the data in 2018. The EADs may have been issued in previous years, but it's the total number of this type of EAD holders who could be working if they wanted to do so.

The numbers of interest are 288,415 in OPT and 118,660 in STEM OPT, for a total of 407,075. If one subtracts 200,162 from 407,075 one gets a number of OPT-ables in excess of 200,000. These foreign nationals are, at the least, not reporting their employer to DHS. To what extent this large number is in illegal status cannot currently be known.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the data for the two tables were drawn at different times of the year, or were calculated inconsistently, thus overstating the size of the problem.

It would be helpful if the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) were routinely to cancel or threaten to cancel EADS, and thus legal status, when appropriate, so that those no longer in legal status are caused to leave the nation, and so that we have a better grasp on the situation. The threat to cancel an EAD in cases where there was simply a reporting problem would cure matters quickly.

It is intolerable that the legal status of such a large number of aliens — all known by name to the government — should be in question.