Foreign Students Locked out of Workforce by Bureaucracy and Red Tape
“U.S. citizens only” — the three most dreaded words for any international student on the job hunt fresh out of college. As a Canadian citizen who recently graduated from a U.S. school myself, I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve put into job applications –– only to get the apologetic, “Unfortunately, we only hire U.S. students” email.
This is not to say there is no demand for international student labor. Many reports have shown that U.S. companies do look to hire foreign talent. Furthermore, the international student hiring process and immigration policies are ever-changing in an attempt to meet workforce supply needs. In fact, last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced its new implementation of Form I-907, where students can request “Premium Processing Service,” stating that it would “increase efficiency and reduce burdens to the overall immigration system,” as well as streamline the process “for a great many international students.”
However, this form and those like it will only burden international students with more paperwork––the combined instructions and form are 14 pages long—and force them to pay an additional $1,500 to $2,500 filing fee on top of the several hundred dollar filing fee charged for the initial form which they are applying to get processed more quickly. As such, adding paperwork fails to address the real flaws in the international student hiring process.
Instead of augmenting the filing process, to truly streamline international student hiring programs, immigration agencies, and the federal government should seek solutions within hiring companies themselves.
Currently, post-grad international students looking to work in the U.S. must apply for Optional Practice Training (OPT) status under the F-1 visa, which allows them to work in the country for just 12 months. Afterward, they must either change their visa status somehow, transfer to a new school or program, or leave the country after 60 days. STEM students are an exception, as they can apply for a 24-month work extension. While the OPT program may seem to help students who wish to remain in the U.S. after graduating, it doesn’t help them get hired full-time. The process of hiring an OPT student is so hampered by a lack of clarity that businesses tend to be averse to hiring international students. Companies often ghost or reject OPT students upon discovering their citizenship status.
This I know from experience. I still remember going through the grueling application process for an economics research fellowship at one of my dream think tanks. Despite making it all the way through a highly competitive vetting process, submitting multiple writing samples, and securing a nomination from my school’s fellowship committee, in the end, I was deemed ineligible when the think tank’s program manager learned about my OPT STEM extension status. Although economics is clearly listed under STEM at my school, he claimed that he did not feel that economics was relevant enough to STEM and disqualified me, citing legal compliance issues, and rejecting any attempt I made to explain why I was indeed eligible to work there.
My experience is just one among the hundreds of thousands of international students residing in the U.S. An article in The Observer wrote that while OPT has existed since 1947, “students continue to report feeling that the process of applying for work permits in the United States is frightening and anxiety-inducing.” One anonymous student even stated that “employers get scared off as soon as you indicate anything about work visa sponsorships.”
Given that the U.S. workforce benefits immensely from those who hail from overseas, one would expect the international student hiring process to be much more efficient. Last school year, international students contributed a combined $33.8 billion to the U.S. economy; this helped create new jobs and raise overall wages for domestic workers. Yet, as my experience demonstrates, the process is plagued by ambiguity and misunderstanding. As such, policymakers must consider ways to improve the OPT program that does not simply involve “streamlining” paperwork.
To begin with, there must be a push towards better educating U.S. businesses and hiring staff in what the OPT program entails. Among the many myths surrounding OPT applicants, one of the most detrimental is that it is costly for firms to hire OPT students and they must complete mountains of paperwork. In reality, there are no additional costs for firms. Rather, it’s students that must pay $410 just to apply for OPT, and another $410 to extend it through STEM. Further, only students and their Designated School Official (DSO) are required to fill out additional forms. Just as the Environmental Protection Agency provides guidance and training to companies on how to properly handle hazardous waste, certain U.S. immigration or employment agencies should conduct similar OPT workshops for U.S. employers.
Furthermore, companies should be required to clearly disclose in job posts whether or not they accept students with OPT status. Indeed, the nature of some jobs understandably requires applicants to be U.S. citizens, but this should be explicitly stated upfront to save students and employers alike time and resources.
On top of this, in regard to the OPT STEM extension, what falls under “STEM” must be more clearly defined. Today, many universities have begun listing social sciences—such as political science and economics—as STEM majors, but their definitions do not always line up with that of employers. This confusion often results in companies rejecting students due to fears of non-compliance.
Between 2019 and 2021, the number of active F-1 and M-1 students decreased by 18%, indicating that it is becoming more and more difficult for OPT students to find jobs. OPT students are the only ones enduring extra costs when job-seeking while contributing over $28 billion to the U.S. economy through tuition alone. If the government wants to efficiently and effectively capitalize on the benefits added by international students, it must improve the OPT process.