A recent lawsuit threatens to eliminate or substantially cut the Optional Practical Training (OPT), an arrangement under which international students studying in the United States on F-1 visas can remain in the states for one year post-graduation in order to begin working. If working in a STEM-related sector, they can stay for up to three years.
The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers Union (WashTech) filed a lawsuit against the OPT program, claiming that the program was unjust to their workers. (Forbes, “Latest On The Court Cases That Could Restrict Immigration, OPT And H-1B Spouses,” 06.10.19).
Cutting or altering the OPT program could prove disastrous for international students who want to work in the United States after graduation. Director of International Services at Vassar Andrew Meade shared via email correspondence, “To stay in the United States after graduation, international students must either use OPT, go right into graduate/law/medical school, or change their visa to another status. Many students (international or domestic) prefer not to go right into grad school, and some grad schools actually expect to see some practical experience on a student’s portfolio.” Ultimately, international students who don’t want to go to graduate school or can’t change their status would be unable to stay in the United States.
The majority of international students at Vassar use the OPT program to work after graduation if they don’t plan to go straight to graduate school. According to Meade, as of last summer, 25 Vassar graduates worked for an OPT program and seven applied or were working on a STEM OPT. He expects the number of students applying for the STEM OPT will rise as more and more students become interested in STEM employment.
Economics major Ivy Teng ’21, an international student from China, explained how the majority of international students at Vassar take advantage of the OPT program.
“The default is you do it,” said Teng.
Meade emphasized that the program is already especially competitive, with the amount of applicants exceeding the available spots. “The problem with these visas currently is that 65,000 are issued for which there are roughly 200,000 applicants, so even if you are successful at applying for the visa there is still only a one in three chance you will get it. Were OPT to go away, there would be many thousands more applicants for those same 65,000 spots.”
However, even with the OPT program still intact, the Trump administration’s view on immigration has created a hostile environment for international students hoping to live in the United States after graduation. “The administration has also undertaken unofficial measures to curb immigration…Another measure directly affecting our OPT applicants is that the processing time for this benefit, which up until this spring was one to three months, is now three to five months” said Meade.
Meade continued, “The direct impact of that is that some students simply give up and go home.”
Vassar graduate and international student from China, Letian Yu ’19, explained that she was one of the lucky students who received her visa card in time to work in the OPT program. She currently works for Edgeworth Economics, an economic consulting firm.
Yu mentioned how the job search process is becoming more difficult for international students. “Because of these restrictions and the money the companies have to pay to sponsor the students, fewer and fewer companies are willing to sponsor international students…If the government makes the process more complicated, [companies] will be less likely to hire people.” said Yu.
Teng elaborated on how many international students want to work in the United States after graduation because of its large economy and fertile ground for growing industry.
“The U.S. is such a big economy in the world, and it would be beneficial to learn how people do things in the United States… Working in the U.S. would definitely add to our resumes.”
While tensions over the program remain high, Teng expressed that she feels the OPT program will not likely be completely eliminated, because international students bring talents that U.S. companies want.
“It doesn’t make sense to not give international students a chance to work here, because a lot of them are really talented and a lot of companies would want them to be in their firm,” said Teng.
Teng continued, “Also, if students are not allowed to work here, I think there will be a decrease in international students coming to the United States to study, because a lot of them have the goal to work here in mind.”
Although the end of the program would put international students in jeopardy, Yu is doubtful that Trump’s hostility will lead to any actual changes. This lawsuit has caused controversy in the past. “They’re saying the same thing every year,” said Yu. She noted her doubts that the program would change, given the rapid approach of the next election.
Regardless, threatening the program is, in her words, “against the spirit of the United States.”