New York Times, San Jose Mercury-News Hide Subsidies for Alien Grads in OPT Articles

By David North on June 18, 2019

Two big newspapers, one on each coast, managed recently to publish longish articles on the controversial Optional Practical Training program for foreign grads of U.S. universities without mentioning the program's dirty little secret — America's elderly and sick in effect pay $2 billion a year to employers who hire alien grads through OPT rather than American ones.

Neither article mentioned the approximately 8 percent tax break that employers of foreign grads, but not of American grads, get under OPT. They save on taxes because the foreign alums are regarded as still being students under OPT, thus freeing them and their employers from the normal contributions to the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds through payroll taxes, as we have reported earlier.

The New York Times article on Monday dealing with a slowdown within the Department of Homeland Security in the issuance of work permits for the foreign alumni bore this awkward headline: "Visa Delays at Backlogged Immigration Service Strand International Students".

Headline-writing is an art that struggles with a need for both quick action and a description of often complex ideas in very limited space. In this case, the six-column headline (they are much easier to write than one-column ones) included these problems:

  • Visas are granted by the State Department, not Homeland Security, and they relate to legal presence in the country, not permission to work; the super- sophisticated Times copy desk should know that;
  • I would not use the dramatic verb "strand" to describe a loss of, or a delay of, a federally subsidized job, with such subsidies being denied to U.S. citizens; and
  • The aliens losing the subsidized jobs in this case were primarily college graduates, not students.

So three goofs within a space of nine words, an indoor record?

The Times article focused on the new delays in the issuance of work permits for these jobs, which, indirectly, caused the loss of some of those jobs, and on an interesting set of "victims", all of whom are former or current students at Ivy League universities. This gives a lopsided view of the program that routinely provides subsidized jobs to more than 200,000 alumni of less highly regarded institutions.

For instance, you would not know from reading any of the rare media coverage of this program that OPT alumni have been hired, in subsidized jobs, as construction laborers.

An interesting side-light in this article was a brief account of how a fleet-of-foot Yale University managed to outwit both its Ivy League rivals and the U.S. government.

The OPT program covers both students and alumni, with different rules for each sub-population, and those rules are less stringent for students than for alumni; permission for students to hold these subsidized jobs is granted by the universities, while permission for the alumni to work at these jobs is the subject of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) determinations.

Clever, clever Yale, finding that some of its alumni were not getting work permits quickly enough created a class for those alumni, returning them to student status, and thus allowing the university to issue the work permits and preserving their subsidized jobs. The Times reported that maneuver as follows:

Yale sprang into action days after receiving a petition from more than 150 students, according to the student newspaper The Yale Daily News, announcing a course in the fall that will allow the university, rather than the federal government, to approve off-campus employment for international students over the summer.

Creating a course "in the fall" for the sole purpose of getting around the immigration law in the summer? It would be interesting to look in on this course, or "course", this fall to see how many of the "students" actually show up for classes.

And what will the name of this, presumably graduate-level, course be?

How about "Political Science 536: How to Snooker the U.S. Government"?

I have two different reactions to this: As an immigration policy person, Yale's questionable creativity, for a dubious cause, sounds like it should be quashed, but it probably won't be by the sleepy part of the government, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (a subset of ICE), which is in charge of such things.

And as a former managing editor of the Daily Princetonian (Woodrow Wilson was the first person to hold that job), I am envious of the Yale Daily News' press coverage.

Meanwhile, on the other coast. The San Jose Mercury News is generally to be praised, as it is just about the only daily paper that writes in any depth about the H-1B program, which is so important to Silicon Valley and so detrimental to American workers in the high-tech fields.

So it was not remarkable that this paper was one of the few in the country to report an important event in the migration business, that a commendable congressman is about to make a commendable move.

That's Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and what he plans to do, in the next few weeks, is to introduce a bill terminating the OPT program; he has also written to the president urging him to end the program (which has no legislative basis) by issuing an executive order.

Gosar is aware of the subsidies in the program, and is opposed to them. The first report on his legislative proposal came from Bloomberg News, which also noted the subsidy element in OPT, but the Mercury-News account failed to mention the tax break.

A caveat: Sometimes the electronic version of a news story is different from the printed version; sometimes one is longer than the other. I base the reporting above on reading the print version of the Times article and the online version of the Mercury-News piece.

It will be interesting to see if Gosar collects any co-sponsors for his bill, and if so, who they are. It is a particularly difficult issue for reformers because the subsidy element of the program — and particularly the people paying the bill, our elderly and infirm — are virtually never mentioned in the press.

That these trust funds are, in effect, sending money to employers who would rather hire alien graduates than American ones, remains, for all practical purposes, a dirty little secret.