Universities to White House: Save the OPT Student-to-Worker Program

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A group of university associations is asking a former Microsoft executive in the White House to help preserve a very lucrative student-to-worker program that was created at the request of Microsoft.

“We understand that the administration is reviewing the OPT [Optional Practical Training] program as it examines additional actions following the April 22 executive order, says the May 19 letter to Chris Liddell, whose understated titled is “Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff, Policy Coordination.”

“We would welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion with you and others in the administration about the importance of international students and their positive effect on the U.S. economy,” says the letter, which was posted by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Liddell worked as senior vice president and the Chief Financial Officer at Microsoft from 2005 to December 2009.

“He’s in the White House? Oh God,” responded immigration lawyer John Miano after being told of the letter to Liddell.

While Liddell was working for Microsoft, his company’s lobbyists persuaded President George W. Bush’s deputies to dramatically expand the OPT program, Miano said.

The program’s claimed benefits — such as its delivery of foreign workers for U.S. jobs — is a political issue in the 2020 election when millions of swing-voting American graduates face unemployment amid the economic crash caused by China’s coronavirus. On April 22, Trump ordered a review of the visa worker programs which provide U.S. companies with an army of at least 1.3 million foreign white-collar guest workers.

Miano is working at the Immigration Reform Law Institute from where he has run a 12-year, three-appeal marathon lawsuit against the OPT program. “Microsoft was a leader in transforming OPT into a guest-worker program,” Miano said, adding:

It had originally been a year-long internship kind of thing, and it was under the radar. In 2007, Microsoft threw a dinner party with several other tech companies for [DHS chief Michael] Chertoff at the [owner’s] home of the Washington Nationals where they proposed to expand it so it would be long enough to serve as an alternative to H-1B.

After that, DHS worked in secrecy with these tech companies and the universities to create the regulations. They didn’t tell anyone. They didn’t tell the public they were working on the regulations, and then they put the regulations out without notice and comment. That’s how OPT was created — government by dinner party.

In 2018, the OPT and the associated Curricular Practical Training (CPT) programs delivered at least 500,000 cheap OPT and CPT workers to companies, up from almost 100,000 in 2007, according to agency data. In comparison, roughly 800,000 Americans graduated from four-year colleges with technology degrees in 2018.

Liddell also worked as a top staffer in Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Miano said his 12-year lawsuit against the OPT program might be decided in September. The judge is likely waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) case, he said.

The pending DACA decision may change the OPT decision because Chief Justice John Roberts asked about President Barack Obama’s claimed authority to grant work permits to the DACA migrants. Obama’s claim relied on an interpretation of a section of law titled 1324a, which is also used to justify the OPT program.

The OPT and CPT programs provide up to $41 billion in annual revenues to a wide range of universities and colleges because many foreigners pay tuition fees to get the work permits.

“The latest analysis finds that international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $41 billion and supported 458,290 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2018-2019 academic year,” said a trade group for the strongly pro-Democrat universities.

OPT advocates correctly say it provides a route for clever scientists and researchers to stay in the United States, but they downplay the work permits, partly because of Miano’s lawsuit. The program “offers talented international students who complete a U.S. degree the opportunity to remain in the country for a period of time to enhance their educational experience,” said the letter to Liddell from the university groups.

Breitbart News has repeatedly showcased the universities’ pro-OPT arguments. In December 2019, Breitbart reported:

“OPT is a critical program of immense benefit to our international students,” said a statement from Jane Fernandes, the president of Guilford College. “Any actions taken to limit or decrease student participation in this program will significantly harm U.S. higher education [and the] Loss of the OPT program will reduce our ability to recruit excellent international students and benefit from their presence.”

But the OPT program is just one of several means by which clever graduates can stay and work in the United States. They can use the uncapped H-1B and L-1 contract worker programs, the uncapped O-1 Einstein visa, and the large E.B. green card process, but the OPT program is the easiest and the one least controlled by companies.

Most foreign users of the OPT program are seeking entry-level jobs in the software, electronics, and science sectors that are also needed by American graduates.

Many of the OPTs work long hours in low-wage, low-tax jobs that used to be gateway jobs for bright American youths. But many OPTs are picked for well-paid jobs at elite companies, often by immigrant managers who prefer to hire people of their national or ethnic backgrounds, say American and Indian tech workers.

In 2018, for example, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Amazon hired 5,081 OPT participants, so denying 5,081 career-boosting prestigious jobs to young college graduate voters from states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

The Department of Homeland Security provides basic information about the program, including the numbers of foreign graduates who get one-year permits or three-year permits, the universities, and the hiring companies.

2018 Total Number of SEVIS Records with Authorizations to Participate in CPT, OPT or STEM OPT

2018 Total Number of SEVIS Records with Authorizations to Participate in CPT, OPT or STEM OPT

The program is strongly supported by the business groups and investors that employ blocs of H-1B workers.

Advocates for the program do not offer reforms that would protect the inflow of clever scientists while barring the inflow of ordinary graduates.

Most OPTs hope to transition into the H-1B program that allows them to eventually get green cards, but that route requires them to compete for the approval of their employers and then to win the H-1B lottery.

To win the H-1B lottery, many OPTs — usually Indians — extend their stay by paying tuition for a second or a third master’s degree.

The stakes for India’s migrant workers are huge. For example, some get status-boosting careers and citizenship in the United States, while others are ejected back to India after working for several years. One Indian who fled home after being caught up in one of many OPT fraud cases told his story in February 2019 to the BBC:

Veeresh had taken a loan of 1.5m rupees (£16,300; $21,000) to help pay for his [U.S.] education. The first university cost him $30,000 and Farmington [University] cost him an additional $20,000. He had to borrow money from his friend to buy a ticket to come back home.

He still hasn’t told his parents why he returned.

“They think I am on vacation. But the truth is that I have no job and a college loan to pay off. My parents would be devastated if they knew the truth.”

His parents are farmers and Veeresh had hoped to help them out by earning an income in dollars, some of which he could send home.

“I am the only son. I wanted to take care of my parents. We do not own land or a house. I wanted to go to America to earn better so that I can buy a house for my family in India.”

“The OPT program serves mainly as a highfalutin foreign worker pipeline that operates parallel to — but without the numerical limits and oversight of — the green card and guest worker programs that Congress created,” said Jessica Vaughan policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies. She added:

The OPT program allows employers to avoid all pretense of considering US workers for these jobs, because there are few rules or expectations of showing that Americans aren’t available or qualified for these jobs … The numbers of OPT participants are so huge now that it is obviously not for the best and brightest foreign students, it’s for the ones willing to pay (tuition) to stay.

U.S. grass-roots activists — and some GOP politicians — are increasingly protesting the program, which transfers good jobs from Americans to foreign graduates.

Follow Neil Munro on Twitter @NeilMunroDC, or email the author at NMunro@Breitbart.com.

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