U.S. universities are rapidly increasing the number of fee-paying foreign students who are being fast-tracked into the professional jobs sought by American graduates.
In 2009, the universities helped 67,804 foreign graduates get white-collar jobs under the little-known Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreigners to get professional-grade jobs inside the United States for at least three years.
By 2016, the universities worked with companies to get at least 147,498 foreign student customers into the white-collar jobs, according to the Institute of International Education, a New York-based group run by trustees from industry, education and Wall Street.
The OPT outsourcing program is great for the foreign students because it gets them a U.S. job for three years, and puts them on a track to win extremely valuable Green Cards and citizenship. It is great for employers because many OPT employees work for low salaries in the hope of eventually getting Green Cards — and also because the OPT employees are exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes, unlike American employees.
The OPT system is also great for universities and colleges because it brings in more student customers from overseas, whose tuition fees greatly exceed the paperwork costs paid by universities to run the OPT program. That’s a big financial benefit for universities.
But the OPT guest-worker program is bad for the many ordinary American graduates who are being shut out of more than 100,000 jobs — and who also face increased lifetime competition from imported, lower-wage foreign professionals. Also, many U.S. graduates have difficulty in paying off their accumulated debt of $1.23 trillion.
Joseph Palos, a high-tech graduate from Cornell University, formally objected to the OPT program in 2015. ”Companies don’t want to hire Americans and they abuse… OPT to hire cheap immobile labor instead of hiring anyone over the age of 35, especially in software or tech areas,” he wrote to a federal agency, according to a report in ComputerWorld.
That’s a challenge for President-elect Donald Trump, who campaigned against work visas — such as the H-1B visa — that disadvantage Americans. “I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program,” he said in a March 2016 statement. “No exceptions,” he added.
The scale of the OPT outsourcing program is unclear — but it is certainly huge.
For comparison, the 147,498 foreigners now employed in the OPT program add up to three times the 51,000 Americans who graduated with information technology jobs in 2015, according to federal data. The number of resident foreign OPT professionals is also five times the 29,000 Americans who graduated with science degrees in 2015, and 40 percent more than the 108,000 Americans who graduates with engineering degrees.
The OPT number is expected to sharply rise in 2017 and later because President Barack Obama expanded the program to allow foreign students to work up to 24 months instead of 12 months. Also, foreign graduates from so-called “STEM” degrees — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — can work for an additional 12 months, or a total of three years.
The federal government defines STEM very broadly, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
OPT STEM graduates, says the DHS, can work in “dairy science… horticultural science… environmental studies … natural resources conservation … urban forestry … artificial intelligence … computer graphics … solar energy … naval science … cyber/electronic operations and warfare … stealth technology … undersea warfare … nutrition sciences … sustainability studies … child psychology … archaeology … medical science … veterinary physiology … business statistics … management science.”
The OPT program also allows companies to hire technicians who are not eligible for other visas, such as the H-1B visa for university graduates. That means community colleges can advertise their two-year degrees in China and India, knowing their foreign students will pay high tuition fees to win good jobs in the United States. The DHS list of STEM jobs for OPT employees includes more than 50 types of technical jobs, including “electrical, electronic… Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Engineering Technology/Technician … solar energy … welding … industrial production … quality control … automotive engineering … nuclear engineering … [and] biology.”
For example, Hostos Community College in New York recruits students with offers of OPT jobs. The college is part of the CUNY network. Others examples include Glendale Community College in California, Houston Community College in Texas, and Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio. Here’s an OPT–based recruitment video from Shoreline Community College, near Seattle, Wash., featuring a Japanese student who wants to become a U.S. policeman.
Universities, such as James Madison University in Virginia, love the OPT program because it allows them to effectively sell U.S. work-permits to foreign students, and to rent foreign students to companies. “We are very supportive of giving international students more opportunities because they are our alums, they are our graduates, they are the ones that are going to get better jobs because the companies are going to see that there’s more longitude to it,” said Adria Baker, the director of Rice University’s office for international students. “The companies are depending on these students. They hire them because they are the best people for that field,” she said.
Foreign students openly say they pay tuition to American universities because they also get work permits. “The primary reason I chose the U.S. was exactly that it offers better opportunities than other countries, whose immigration policies may be stricter,” Maggie Tang, a 2015 graduate of Rice, told the university newspaper. “I knew I had a chance to stay here and work, to earn back some of that tuition and gain experience,” she said.
University lobbyists have also pushed for the legal right to provide Green Cards — and a path to citizenship — directly to their paying customers. This dramatic proposal was endorsed in Obama’s 2013 “comprehensive immigration reform” bill that passed the Democratic-run Senate, but which was stopped by the GOP-run House in 2014. In 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton backed this proposal, which would have slashed middle-class salaries by flooding the nation’s white-collar labor market with foreign professionals.
The OPT program is one of several visa programs that allow foreign graduates to take jobs sought by U.S. college graduates.
For example, the H-1B visa program gives U.S. white-collar jobs to roughly 650,000 foreign graduates, and the L-1 visa program is being used by a few hundred thousand foreign white-collar graduates to work in the United States. Overall, the population of foreign college graduates working in the United States exceeds 1 million — and exceeds the annual number of young Americans who graduate with four-year degrees in technology, business or healthcare.
The H-1B jobs are mostly in the information technology business, but they also include many prestigious jobs in accounting, engineering, academia, government agencies, and in healthcare, both on the coasts and in the heartland of the country. Many universities, include Rice University, have hired roughly 100,000 foreign graduates via the H-1B visa program as low-salary professors, doctors, therapists, and scientists.
On Jan. 17, three days before he leaves office, Obama is expected to release a set of regulations that will further expand the H-1B program.
There is little information about what jobs are being given to foreign graduates via the OPT program. But many seem to be starter jobs in the information technology sector which are needed by Americans graduates to pay their debts and to advances in their career field.
Some of the jobs are given to the the foreign graduates via a semi-hidden jobs market for “freshers.” That’s an Indian term for new graduates, so a quick search of online job sites for “freshers” shows companies which are eager to hire foreigners via the OPT program. Specialized websites for job-seeking OPT graduates exist. Also, there’s some evidence that many OPT workers are hired by their co-nationals living in the United States, without Americans being allowed to apply for the jobs.
The OPT program began in 1979 with only 2,840 OPT workers. It climbed to 7,712 jobs in 1989, to 25,857 jobs in 1999, to 66,601 jobs in 2009, and to 147,498 jobs in 2016, according to the Institute of International Education.
The programs’s growth is also accelerating. It grew by 11,000 jobs from 2013 to 2014, by almost 15,000 jobs from 2014 to 2015, and by 27,211 jobs from 2015 to 2016.
That figure went up 22.6 percent from 2015 to 2016.
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