GAO Finds Need for Greater Oversight of F-1/M-1 Students on OPT19 Mar 2014
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued an extensive report in February 2014 regarding the oversight of the optional practical training (OPT) program for F-1 and M-1 foreign students. In the report, the GAO concludes that there is a need for additional risk assessment and oversight in connection with the OPT program. Although the report does not, in and of itself, directly alter existing OPT policy or practice, such reports often precede important changes within a program.
Purpose of GAO Study
The GAO was asked to study the management of the OPT program and report its findings to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The report reviews whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has done enough to identify and assess the risks related to the OPT program. It also looks at whether there are sufficient mechanisms to ensure that students present in the United States pursuant to OPT are compliant with the terms of the program.
Security Focus on Students Post-9/11
Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been a heavy security-related focus on foreign students. To that end, the F-1 and M-1 student programs are under the jurisdiction of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and ICE’s program called the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). In the report, the GAO finds that there are discrepant views within ICE regarding the risks associated with OPT. Senior SEVP officials advised the GAO that they consider OPT to be a low-risk benefit; ICE agents and officials from ICE’s Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit (CTCEU), on the other hand, expressed concern with the potential for fraud and noncompliance within the OPT program.
Noncompliant Schools Exploit OPT Program
The GAO notes that, in the past, various investigations of schools have uncovered instances of exploitation and abuse of the OPT program. Prior reports on the oversight of foreign national students have led to positive changes that allows ICE to better identify problem schools and increase compliance. Another improvement in oversight is that the SEVP compliance unit now maintains lists of schools that may be noncompliant with student-related immigration regulations. However, the GAO believes that SEVP needs to focus more on some of the unique risk factors presented by OPT.
Inconsistency in Monitoring Compliance with OPT Requirements
The report finds that inconsistencies exist in monitoring details of compliance with the OPT terms. For example, the GAO points out that student records often fail to include basic information, such as the name and address of the employer, as well as employment start and end dates. This makes it difficult to determine whether or not the student is meeting the requirements of OPT. The report notes, however, that the student records for those participating in the STEM OPT program have almost 100% complete employer data.
Expect Continued OPT Scrutiny
The past few years have brought scrutiny on certain schools that participate heavily in the F-1 student program. Further, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) appears to be examining OPT compliance issues far more closely than what was done in the past, a challenge that often arises in the context of filing a request to extend or change status. This report by the GAO could potentially lead to even more rigorous enforcement efforts within the OPT program. Therefore, it is incumbent upon foreign national students to pay close attention to their activities while participating in OPT.
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