USA not checking post-study work students

13 March, 2014

The USA has been failing to adequately keep track of tens of thousands of international students through the post-study Optional Practical Training (OPT) scheme, according to an internal audit of the scheme by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The OPT scheme is an employment benefit for international students, providing temporary work opportunities to gain experience related to fields of study after completion of an academic programme for periods of 12-29 months, depending on the course subject.

However, GAO analysis of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records on the scheme found that for 38 per cent of participants (48,642 of 126,796 students) the records did not contain an employer’s name, while ICE did include data on when students began working.

“ICE, a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has not identified or assessed fraud or noncompliance risks posed by schools that recommend and foreign students approved for OPT, in accordance with DHS risk management guidance,” said the GAO report.

It was suggested that the ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) officials deem OPT to be low risk because, in part, “they believe foreign students approved for OPT do not have an incentive to jeopardise their legal status in the United States”.

GAO agents also identified cases where school officials recommended OPT for international students to work outside their areas of study, which is not permitted under ICE regulations.

“The problems with OPT are extensive and serious. The report not only calls into question the department’s oversight of the programme, but also whether such lack of oversight is a serious national security risk,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, who released the report, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson. The public version of the report released this week omits several pages of information on risk in the OPT system, deemed to be too sensitive for public disclosure. Senator Grassley called for a moratorium on the OPT programme.

“The use of the OPT programme has increased dramatically over the years. In 2008, just 28,497 students were approved for OPT. In 2013, 123,328 were approved,” said Senator Grassley in his letter. “In the last six years, more than 560,000 students received OPT. Only 2.6 per cent of those who applied in 2013 were denied. Only 0.06 per cent of those approved in the last six years have had their OPT revoked. This data shows that there’s an upward trend in applications while denials and revocations are minimal.”

The report made a number of recommendations to ensure that ICE strengthens its risk assessment procedures and to help schools and students comply with the regulations.

Among the recommendations were: a requirement that all 12-month post completion OPT participants report to their designated schools officials (DSOs), who must record employer information; a requirement that DSOs record initial dates of employment and any periods of unemployment; the development of guidance for DSOs on how to determine whether a job is related to a student’s field of study; and the development of a mechanism to monitor information and determine if students are accruing more OPT time than allowed.

The report notes that the DHS concurred with the recommendations and actions are underway to address them, with new software due to be released this year that will incorporate many of the data recommendations.

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