Congress Must Reform This Key Immigration Program

Congress Must Reform This Key Immigration Program
(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
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Much of the national conversation about immigration reform is rightly focused on the need to secure our southern border but many aspects of immigration system need reform. One example is the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT), which allows foreign students to work in the U.S. after they have graduated.

What began in 2007 as a lobbying campaign to bypass Congressional gridlock led by Microsoft has turned into a glaring problem with our immigration system. That year, Microsoft led an effort to expand the OPT after they realized that they would not be able to increase their access to foreign workers through Congressional legislation. The effort was successful. The annual cap on the program (then set at 65,000) was removed and the duration of the program tripled without Congressional legislation. The number of students participating in the OPT program has risen from 24,838 in 2007, to 200,162 in 2018. Over the same period, the students participating in the STEM OPT extension has increased from 2 to 69,650.

Congress never intended the program to grow in this way. To turn OPT back into a program that can be managed, I just introduced the Responsible Practical Training Act. This act would cut the duration of OPT programs to a maximum of 6 months, prohibit foreign students who are studying in military related fields from participating, and help to inform future policy by ordering a wage-study of the effect that these programs have on American workers.

The first provision of the Responsible Practical Training Act would rein in the expanding scope of the OPT program. It would be made more manageable by cutting out any of the program extensions and limiting participation to 6 months. When the program began it was a small and manageable before lobbying efforts grew it into something that is well outside the original scope. One result is that our nation’s aging and ailing population are funding a rapidly growing number of foreign OPT workers who do not pay into Social Security and Medicare funds. American employers are exempt from paying payroll taxes on OPT college graduates, which gives them an incentive to hire OPT participants over American college graduates. As we try to heal from a pandemic, we should not be prioritizing foreign employment, especially in military-related fields, which raises additional national security concerns.

As the OPT program stands now, foreign nationals are allowed to train in fields like Nuclear Engineering, Underseas Warfare, Cyber Warfare, Combat Systems Engineering, Military Applied Sciences, Military Systems Information Technology, Aircraft Armament Systems Technology, and many more military-related fields. They are also allowed to train in potentially sensitive non-military fields like nanotechnology. The Responsible Practical Training Act would end this aspect of OPT entirely. Foreign nationals would be prohibited from training in any military-related or sensitive fields. In the 2018-2019 academic year, 31% of OPT program participants were Chinese nationals. Iran is also one of the top 5 participating countries. It is questionable whether these countries should be able to participate in these programs at all, much less be allowed to train in military-related fields.

The final provision of the Responsible Practical Training Act requires that the Secretary of Labor conduct a wage analysis, so that we gain a better picture of the duties, hours, and compensation of foreign workers participating in the program as they relate to American workers. The study would be published on the Department of Labor website one year after the passage of the act and would continue to be published each subsequent year that the OPT program is active. It is imperative that we have the best information possible on this and other immigration programs so that we can effectively reform and bolster our immigration system.

Implementing a wage study on OPT programs, after the duration has been cut to six months and the military-related fields have been omitted, will help inform sound immigration policy. It may be found that the effects of this program are detrimental enough that it should be completely ended, but this bill will act as an intermediate step that turns OPT into a program that SEVP can manage more effectively. The Responsible Practical Training act provides a generous training program for foreign students while prioritizing the interests of American graduates and safeguarding our national security.

Hon. Madison Cawthorn represents North Carolina’s 11th District in the United States House of Representatives.

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