OPT: No Longer a Foreign Student Free-for-All

By Jessica M. Vaughan on October 23, 2020

On Wednesday, Homeland Security and ICE officials held a press conference to announce the results of Operation Optical Illusion — an investigation into fraud within the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. This discretionary program allows foreign college students to work in the United States for up to three years after graduation in a job related to their area of study.

For years, the OPT program has been controversial in part because the program rules do not include any numerical limitations or fair wage provisions, but also because there has been very little scrutiny or compliance investigations, even after a number of scandals that attracted national media coverage and congressional pleas for better oversight. (Another source of controversy is the tax subsidy enjoyed by employers of OPT workers; Wednesday's DHS announcement did not address that issue.)

For instance, in March 2019, federal prosecutors indicted Weiyun "Kelly" Huang, a Chinese national, for visa fraud, after it was revealed she operated an illegitimate tech business — Findream — to employ approximately 1,900 Chinese students through the OPT program. Among the OPT employees purported to work at the fraudulent company was Ji Chaoqun, who was arrested in 2018 due to alleged espionage on behalf of the Chinese government.

As NBC News reported:

According to court documents, Findream's alleged purpose was "false verifications of employment" for Chinese F-1 visa holders seeking work employment "via the OPT program."

An affidavit prepared by an FBI special agent alleges that a website associated with Findream described the OPT opportunity to prospective students as "pretend' work." If a document submission is "well-prepared," the website said, "it will look real" and the U.S. government "will think your status is legal."

The FBI visited the company's listed office in Chicago and found it was bogus. It was "a company on paper only," according to court documents.

Such cases have elicited repeated demands for information from members of Congress, such as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who for years has attempted to exercise oversight and prompt better enforcement of the rules. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report also found that the OPT program was susceptible to abuse.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 200,000 foreign students have OPT work permits, representing one in five student-visa holders overall. DHS officials said on Wednesday that 99 percent of the OPT "students" have already completed their degrees.

The results of the DHS investigation — involving both USCIS, which issues the work permits, and ICE, which monitors the schools and the students — show that instances of OPT fraud are not isolated occurrences, but rather much more widespread. In his remarks, Acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli shared that investigators identified about 1,100 aliens who apparently have failed to adhere to the terms of the OPT program because they apparently are not actually employed. USCIS has sent letters to them saying it intends to rescind 700 of these aliens' work permits, and will not renew the 400 remaining work permits, which will expire within 60 days.

Notably, Cuccinelli said that the agencies are considering sanctions against the designated college employees who are responsible for signing off on the students' employment and helping monitor compliance.

In addition to the action against the 1,100 students, officials also announced that ICE had arrested 15 OPT workers for claiming to work at companies that do not exist — similar to the Findream case. The arrests took place in Boston; the Washington, D.C., area; Houston; Fort Lauderdale; Newark, N.J.; Nashville; Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, Pa.

According to information I obtained independently, many of the workers arrested were citizens of India, and several were from countries that are state sponsors of or associated with terrorism, including countries that are now on the "travel ban" list for non-immigrant visas.

ICE has not released information on the colleges that the offenders attended, or on the alleged employers.

Inexplicably, though, ICE seems to be letting some of the bogus employees off the hook. According to statistics revealed at the press conference, of the more than 160 OPT workers who claimed employment at an apparently bogus company, besides the 15 who were arrested, 40 were allowed to switch to a different OPT program, despite having been busted once for bogus employment.

In addition, 18 of the faux workers are pending approval for some other immigration benefit, and another seven were given some unidentified new legal status. Another 22 apparently left the country on their own and 18 moved to a different part of the country from where they were supposed to be. Forty-one have not been located yet by ICE.

According to Cuccinelli: "Every instance of fraud is a job an American worker could have had, and with so many Americans looking for work [due to the pandemic], this crime is even more unacceptable." Wednesday's announcement marked a long-overdue step toward proper enforcement. Now is the time to overhaul the OPT program to squash the fraud and abuse.

There is an important lesson to be learned in the results of the ICE action against the "students" who were targeted. It is much more effective to prevent fraud and abuse through better oversight up front, when student-visa holders apply for the work permits — by probing the nature of the work, the authenticity of the employment, and the intentions of the student, or even by limiting the number of work permits allowed, or the degree programs that would qualify — than by trying to detect and then locate and remove the violators afterward.