Higher ed groups seek flexibility for applicants of foreign worker program

Dive Brief:

  • More than three dozen higher education groups are requesting federal officials give flexibility to applicants of a popular work and training program for foreign nationals following delays in processing their materials. 

  • Measures should include offering some applicants conditional approval to participate in the Optional Practical Training program, as well as extending filing deadlines, they wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday.

  • The Trump administration took aim at OPT, launching an investigation last year that preliminarily led to the arrest of 15 program participants who claimed they worked at companies that don’t exist. 

Dive Insight:

OPT offers temporary employment for foreign students and is considered to be a major driver of international enrollment in the U.S. 

However, as a part of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy crackdown, histhe administration accused it of stealing jobs from American citizens and began scrutinizing it more heavily. This resulted in the arrests and at least 1,100 OPT work permits being rescinded or not renewed. 

In the waning days of Trump’s tenure, officials said they would form a new federal unit dedicated to ensuring OPT compliance, which would have produced a report detailing “information on duties, hours, and compensation of OPT workers.” However, this week the Biden administration walked back that announcement, saying the federal government is already doing much of the proposed work.

The pandemic and other factors are hampering OPT. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said this month it is experiencing processing delays for applications and other filings made at one of its lockbox facilities.

Once applicants’ forms are received, they get a receipt, which some employers request before allowing them to start their jobs, Voice of America reported earlier this month. However, the process for issuing these notices has slowed down.

The letter from the higher ed organizations, led by the American Council on Education, notes that these new hindrances are particularly concerning because OPT-related processing delays began the summer before the pandemic. ACE President Ted Mitchell cited the vast economic benefits international students have on the country, and that these have slowly diminished in the past several years.

The groups urge officials to ensure that visa records or STEM-related OPT requests aren’t improperly canceled or terminated. And if delays cause applicants to find out they are rejected from the program after deadlines have passed, they should be given an opportunity to refile, they wrote.

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