Big Tech's Optional Practical Training program betrays young and old

By Joseph Maurer on July 14, 2023

Washington Examiner, July 14, 2023

A program that undermines wages, steals from your grandparents, and actively dims the prospects of American college students- only an alliance of Silicon Valley excess and administrative insanity could come up with something so backwards.

The Optional Practical Training program (OPT) is a work authorization given to foreign students and graduates of U.S. universities. According to USCIS, OPT allows for “temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study”. F-1 visas, for the uninitiated, are issued to foreign students actively pursuing education within the United States.

For non-STEM majors, OPT allows for 1 year of work either during study for or following an American degree. However, for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors, this authorization can be extended up to 3 years. All OPT users are free to seek a more permanent H-1B (high tech) work visa, and many do. As with so many other issues, the devil is in the details.

For decades, Congress has recognized the obvious need to protect and improve the job prospects of American citizens. One example was a move to limit the arrival of H-1B foreign workers, mostly college grads, to 85,000 a year.

Despite decades of persistent lobbying by tech companies, Congress refused to permanently expand the H-1B visa pool. However, these companies did not reach their unprecedented power and success by rolling over and accepting defeat; backup schemes were concocted, and soon the usual winners were back on top. A 2007 dinner party, hosted by the owner of the Washington Nationals, brought about a fateful conversation between Microsoft lobbyists and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. Months later, Chertoff’s agency published a rule extending STEM OPT to 29 months (with a further 2016 extension to 36 months). DHS, in its own words, intended to use this OPT extension as a way to circumvent Congress’ cap on H-1Bs, a policy explicitly implemented to protect American workers and students. OPT authorizations, unlike H-1Bs, are uncapped. This is the administrative state at its absolute worst.

Microsoft and the like ultimately got what they wanted. While OPT data is remarkably inconsistent, ICE data indicates there were more than 340,000 OPT workers in 2022. Put plainly, a program meant for complementary education work has become one of the nation’s largest guest worker programs.

The idea that OPT work can still be recognized as a “student visa” activity is laughable; It has morphed into nothing but a bloated and abused guest worker program. Just to catch everybody up- the DHS, at the request of Silicon Valley, openly defied congressional efforts to protect American jobs, creating a massive loophole providing companies with an unlimited stream of foreign labor that directly competes with American workers and students.

Some may argue there is nothing inherently wrong with programs like these. If companies need workers, those spots should be filled by the most qualified people; nationality shouldn’t matter. The government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers, they’ll say. This sounds great on paper, but OPT actually incentivizes companies to hire foreigners over natives. This occurs because employers of OPT workers do not need to pay federal payroll taxes. In other words, the government grants an 8% annual tax break for every foreign worker a company employs under OPT. An obvious question arises- why hire Americans if the government is subsidizing companies to do the opposite?

To add insult to injury, consider what the payroll tax is for. It is the primary fund for Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. Put another way, for every American college student passed over for a foreign OPT hire, funds are taken from our sick and elderly.

The government is picking a winner, and it sure isn’t the American people.