Trump administration weighs suspending program for foreign students, prompting backlash from business, tech

The Trump administration may suspend OPT, a program for foreign students to stay in the U.S. to get 1 or 2 years of occupational training after their educations.
Women walk into the visa application section of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in May 2013.Andy Wong / AP file
By Julia Ainsley and Laura Strickler

WASHINGTON — At the direction of the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has sent recommendations for further restricting legal immigration during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to one former and two current administration officials.

Among the recommendations expected to be considered is the suspension of a program for foreign students to stay in the U.S. to get one or two years of occupational training between secondary education and full-time employment, a move many in the business and university communities are fighting.

The program, known as Optional Practical Training, or OPT, is an incentive for foreign students to come to U.S. universities, as it provides some cushion between school and employment. Talk of suspending OPT has pitted business interests against immigration hard-liners like President Donald Trump's senior adviser Stephen Miller, the officials said.

Miller, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have all said the program has been rife with abuses, particularly by Chinese students whom they accuse of getting American educations and then returning to China. Data from the Congressional Research Service, however, shows otherwise.

"Suspending or ending OPT makes no practical sense — it solves no problem, it reduces the quality of America's higher education system, and it threatens the international exchange of ideas so vital to academic freedom," said Julie Schmid, executive director of the American Association of University Professors.

"International students contribute nearly $41 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Our campuses and our communities benefit from the contributions international students make to education and research," Schmid said. "This move does nothing to ensure the health of U.S. citizens during the COVID crisis. As with Trump's Muslim ban, this is just bigotry posing as concern for national security."

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The new guidelines, expected to be announced in an executive order this month, would expand curbs on legal migration announced by the White House in April. The administration is expected to frame the move as economic protection for Americans faced with staggering unemployment rates.

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Representatives of the White House and DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter said, “While we won’t comment on internal administrative policy discussions one way or the other, millions of Americans have been forced out of work by the pandemic and they ought to be first in line for jobs — not lower-paid imported labor. Polling shows Democrats, Republicans and Independents agree.”

Critics of the proposals say Miller and other immigration hawks are using the pandemic to accomplish a goal they have had since Trump took office: bringing down the overall number of legal immigrants.

When Miller served on the staff of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., he helped draft a bill that would have eliminated OPT. Now, four Republican senators have asked the White House to take the issue of curbing OPT and other legal migration programs into their own hands.

"We urge you to continue to suspend new nonimmigrant guest workers for one year or until our new national unemployment figures return to normal levels whichever comes first," Cotton and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Josh Hawley of Missouri said in a letter to the White House on May 7. The letter said OPT, along with H-1B visas for highly skilled workers and H-2B visas for non-agricultural seasonal workers, should be suspended.

Todd Schulte, president of FWD.US, a pro-immigration reform group of business and tech leaders that counts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg among its founders, said the plan is too similar to previous proposals to be framed as a legitimate response to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

"Three years ago, when unemployment was at 4 percent, the signatories who were in the Senate at the time tried to slash legal immigration by more than 50 percent. ... Today, as unemployment has skyrocketed, these senators now say we need to slash legal immigration in response to the COVID-19 crisis," Schulte said.

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An official familiar with discussions at the White House said the influence of the business community, often communicated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could sink plans to suspend OPT.

But Rosemary Jenks, executive vice president of NumbersUSA, which shares Miller's goal of decreasing overall immigration, said it would be a mistake to keep the program open. Jenks noted that OPT is a regulatory program not protected by statute.

"At a time when millions of Americans and lawful permanent residents are graduating from college with severely limited job opportunities due to COVID-19, it makes absolutely no sense for the administration to continue a regulatory program that allows foreign graduates to take jobs Americans need," she said.

Julia Ainsley
Laura Strickler
Kristen Welker contributed.