A lawsuit threatens the future of a post-graduate work program for international students, potentially impacting those hoping to study in the United States.
The Optional Practical Training program allows international students who have F-1 statuses and student visas to work in the U.S. for a collective total of 12 months while completing their studies and/or after graduation. STEM students, however, are allowed a two-year OPT extension.
Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a labor union for Washington technology workers, filed suit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2016, arguing it was beyond the DHS’s scope to let F-1 students work under the OPT program post-graduation.
In July 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that WashTech could challenge the legality of both the post-completion OPT program and the two-year STEM OPT extension.
In response to the lawsuit, 118 public and private universities and colleges filed an amicus brief in November 2019 to defend OPT and STEM OPT for their international students.
The amicus brief argued international students are essential to the quality of the U.S. higher education system.
“International students play a significant role in fostering the inclusive and diverse atmosphere amici strive to create on campus,” the brief reads. “Their incredible diversity of backgrounds and ethnicities ‘fuels innovation and creativity’ and improves the educational experience for every student, foreign and domestic.”
However, the University of California was not among the colleges and universities that filed the amicus brief.
“The University of California receives many requests for amicus support on different issues but UC is unable to participate in all of these cases,” UC spokesperson Andrew Gordon said in an emailed statement. “We cannot comment further on the University’s legal decisions.”
The UC system currently enrolls about 30,000 international undergraduate students and almost 14,000 international graduate students, according to UC enrollment data.
Celine Tsoi, a second-year psychology and political science student from Hong Kong, said the possibility of terminating the OPT program poses a threat to international students looking to apply to schools, including UCs, in the U.S. for their undergraduate degrees.
“For people that want to stay here, going to America in the first place is probably not a viable option,” Tsoi said.
Vaibhav Gupta, a second-year electrical engineering student from India, said he thinks WashTech’s suit only poses a minor threat to the international student population at UCs because the incentive for international students to study in the U.S. remains high.
“If you fall from 95% of the foreign student population to 90%, sure, you’re falling, but you’re still at 90%,” Gupta said.
However, the OPT program provides many benefits to international students that would not be available otherwise, said Paolo Botta, a third-year computer science student from Italy.
“It gives the possibility for (international) students to try out a job,” Botta said. “It’s definitely better than the alternative if the alternative is you can’t work in the U.S.”
Eliminating OPT could also harm the American economy as international students are a valuable asset to the national job market, Botta said.
“If you make it harder for international students to get jobs … on average, less qualified people are going to be chosen for these jobs,” Botta said. “So, overall, (eliminating OPT) brings damage to the (U.S.) economy.”
Other nations could benefit from employing U.S.-educated international students, according to the amicus brief. If OPT is terminated, students will likely apply their college skill sets to jobs outside the U.S.
“(International students) would immediately depart for their home countries or for other nations glad to host the superb talent that our education system produces,” the brief reads. “In other words, other nations would capture the return on America’s investment.”