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US investigation leads to arrests and revoked OPT work authorisations

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A months-long investigation examining thousands of “suspicious” files for post-study work placements has led to 15 arrests and more than a thousand visa revocations for foreign students throughout the US
  • The investigation marks the latest development in a pattern of increasing scrutiny for student visa programmes in the US

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week the results of a months-long investigation into fraud in the wildly popular optional practical training programme (OPT) for international graduates.

The investigation, which is continuing, has initially focused on 3,300 files deemed by DHS to be suspicious. It has so far resulted in the arrest of 15 foreign graduates who allegedly “claimed to be employed by companies that don’t exist.” Arrests were made in cities around the US, including Pittsburgh, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Harrisburg, Houston, Nashville, Newark, and Washington.

Another 1,100 OPT participants will reportedly have their work authorisations revoked, including 400 who were found to have overstayed their student visas.

The investigation is sure to draw international attention given the importance of the OPT programme as a pathway to post-graduation work experience for foreign students. The programme allows graduates to stay and work in the US for a year after graduation (or up to three years in the case of STEM graduates). The number of students in OPT rose from 203,460 in 2017/18 to 223,085 in 2018/19, a percentage increase of 9.6%. Overall programme participation has increased by roughly 300% in the past decade.

The US administration has strongly signalled its commitment to greater scrutiny of the programme, and increasingly so over the last two years. It is clear as well that this now extends to US college officials as well.

Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of homeland security, avoided direct accusations of fraud against college administrators in his remarks to media last week. But he said that college staff displayed either “willful ignorance or a level of negligence” in their handling of the students’ files. Mr Cuccinelli indicated as well that those findings would lead to the administrators being terminated as designated schools officials, or DSOs, within the US student visa programme, adding that, “Every instance of fraud is a job an American worker could have had, and with so many Americans looking for work this crime is even more unacceptable.”

“[US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] has a system of checks in place to mitigate fraud and is committed to protecting national security by ensuring that students, visitors, and schools comply with US immigration laws,” said senior ICE official Tony Pham. “These latest arrests demonstrate that the agency is actively targeting individuals who try to exploit the student visa system.” He added that ICE would continue to “strike a delicate balance between supporting and promoting legitimate academic opportunities for students while ensuring student and exchange visitor visas are not exploited by bad actors.”

A “reckless attack”

Responding in particular to Mr Cuccinelli characterisation of US college officials, NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Dr. Esther Brimmer said:

“Mr. Cuccinelli’s remarks today constitute an unsubstantiated and reckless attack on key members of the higher education community. While the scope and all other pertinent details of this investigation are unclear, NAFSA and our members stand for the fullest adherence to immigration regulations. It is not the responsibility of DSOs to investigate international students’ OPT employers. Threats to terminate certain DSOs for violating a duty that is not theirs is unnecessarily punitive. The fact is, DSOs work hard every day to comply with the law and advise their international students while responding to an ever-changing environment.”

“Despite the vagueness of this latest announcement,” she added, “what is clear is that this administration feels justified in making international students, and now the school officials that support them, scapegoats for the nation’s economic woes, at a time when it can ill-afford to do so…Actions like this will further deter current and future international students from choosing to study in the US and send them into the arms of our competitor countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia.”

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