Under a 1992 regulation, the OPT program enables international students on F-1 (academic study visas) to work for one year in the US, post their studies. Subsequently, a regulation introduced in 2016, enabled STEM students (those in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics field of study) to get a further OPT extension of up to 24 months. In other words, the OPT tenure available to them is three years.
As per a recently issued Open Doors Report, for the year 2019-20, nearly 18% of the total contingent of international students (or 1.93 lakh) were from India. 81,173 were engaged in the OPT program.
An official statement announcing creation of this Unit, mentions that the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has determined that it must take bold action to ensure that the OPT programs operate in a manner that does not harm American workers or foreign student employees, and are consistent with regulatory and statutory law.
As SEVP is currently unable to evaluate the impact OPT has had on American workers and foreign students who have obtained work authorisation through the programs, setting up of a dedicated Unit was deemed essential.
According to immigration attorneys, setting up of this Unit indicates a far greater reach of on-site visits to ensure compliance with OPT norms.
This Unit will be responsible for recommending investigations of employers and students, as needed, to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to ensure that the OPT programs operate in a lawful manner at US worksites.
It will identify any evidence of unlawful practices within the OPT programs and notify the appropriate authorities. For example, if the Unit were to detect evidence that an employer is using OPT in a discriminatory manner (e.g. as a means to hire only foreign nationals, or only individuals of certain nationalities to the exclusion of others), or in a manner that negatively impacts wages, this unit is empowered to notify the Department of Labour and the US Department of Justice of such evidence, for conducting further investigations.
The OPT Employment Compliance Unit will also evaluate whether employers are adhering to the attestations and training plans required under the OPT extension, which will include on-site visitation, as per the regulation. This evaluation will ensure that employment through the OPT extension is commensurate with the terms and conditions of employment for other similarly situated US workers, as the employer has attested to, as required by law.
It will periodically report its findings in annual public reports, including details on the duties, hours and compensation of OPT workers, as compared to data from the Labour Department. The first report will be published by July 31.
The OPT program has faced flak in some quarters for providing ‘cheap’ labour. On the flip side, the education sector has argued that it is a must to attract international students, who pay higher fees and contribute both directly and indirectly to the US economy.
As has been reported by TOI, last December, the US district court had upheld the OPT program.