Trump Suspends H-1B Through 2020, But Leaves OPT Intact

Anjani Jain, senior associate dean of SOM’s MBA program: “American universities have been for many decades an extraordinary magnet for global talent, especially in STEM disciplines and in business, and these graduates have made an outsized contribution to the ranks of CEOs and senior executives of every large American corporation.” Yale photo

Opposition to the OPT program flows mainly from conservatives, who say it would mean hundreds of thousands of jobs now, or soon to be, held by internationals would go to Americans. On May 7, four GOP senators wrote to Trump calling for the suspension of OPT, as well as H-1B and other visas. The same month Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, introduced legislation to suspend the program. The national College Republicans added their voice to the din later that month.

However, 21 House Republicans bucked their party in early June, penning an open letter that outlined why the OPT program is good for graduates and the companies that hire them, particularly during a pandemic, citing research universities’ efforts in the fight against Covid-19. “A temporary halt to on-the-job training opportunities for international students will have a significant impact on workforce production for years to come, especially in critical STEM fields,” they wrote.

Their sentiments were no doubt received with gratitude by the country’s B-school deans, 50 of whom sent an open letter last October to President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and the top four leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives. The deans urged major reforms in immigration policies that they said restrict talent mobility and pose a threat to the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. In particular they called for the codification of OPT-STEM and its expansion to “meet the needs of the modern economy.”

“Under the OPT-STEM program, people with STEM degrees — which explicitly includes certain business programs — may stay in the country for three years after they receive their degree to receive on-the-job training,” the deans wrote. “The program is vital for the U.S. economy. Given the critical shortage of people with STEM skills in the United States — as well as those with the ability to harness STEM technologies to create jobs — the OPT-STEM program has led to increased economic activity and has even kept some smaller companies from going out of business entirely. Those are just the short-term, measurable impacts. Enabling OPT-STEM grads to further their understanding of U.S. business practices and broaden their U.S.-based networks provides U.S. companies even stronger connections in foreign markets.”

Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University and a leader in the effort to convince Washington of the value of OPT and H-1B, tells P&Q that he understands the impulse to put American citizens back to work when more than 40 million are unemployed. But, he adds, “there are other, more direct routes to address unemployment that would be more effective than shrinking the labor pool. Business school deans have been extremely vocal in explaining the importance of immigration of highly skilled talent to the U.S. economy. It’s disappointing to see the suspension of H-1B visas. Research has shown that skilled immigration actually creates more jobs for the U.S. economy. On the flip side, research also shows that if companies can’t recruit needed international talent to the U.S. they will offshore those jobs — ultimately hurting American workers by providing less opportunity in our economy.

“As I’ve had conversations with policymakers in D.C.,” Boulding continues, “both sides of the aisle have expressed a deep understanding of this issue and the importance of immigration to U.S. economic health. We should be expanding the number of H-1B visas available to grow our economy, not curtailing them. On a more positive note, I was pleased to see that the OPT program, which can be a critical path for badly needed STEM talent that can keep our economy competitive, was not curtailed.”


Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding

Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding. File photo

Support for the OPT program is widely bipartisan. According to the conservative Cato Institute, the program “is the main on‐ramp for American companies to recruit and retain foreign talent in the United States. Gutting it would harm U.S. workers by undermining the very companies that would employ them.”

Cato cites Business Roundtable and the Interindustry Forecasting Project at the University of Maryland, which found that “scaling back OPT would cause the unemployment rate to rise 0.15 percentage points by 2028.” Cato also cites economist Zavodny’s finding that “A larger number of foreign students approved for OPT, relative to the number of U.S. workers, is associated with a lower unemployment rate among those U.S. workers.”

In March 2019, Jeremy Neufeld of the Niskanen Center used OPT data to conclude that “higher levels of OPT participants in a region lead to increased innovation in that region, as measured by the number of patents, higher average earnings among the college educated. In addition, it finds no evidence of adverse effects on average earnings, unemployment, or labor force participation.”

The National Foundation for American Policy found in 2018 that nearly a quarter of American startups valued at $1 billion or more had a founder who entered the Untied States as an international student, which had created 1,200 jobs per company. Think Elon Musk, a South African by birth; Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of Cloudflare, and Ashifi Gogo, founder of Sproxil, both used OPT to launch their businesses, too.

The legal profession also has weighed in, questioning the Trump administration’s legal grounds to implement any measures that curtail OPT or H-1B. According to Suzanne Monyak, writing in the Law360 blog, “In a purported effort to protect U.S. workers, Trump relied on his authority to suspend the entry of foreign nationals who would be ‘detrimental’ to the nation’s interests, a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act called 212(f), when he issued his order blocking some noncitizens from coming to the U.S. on new green cards. But 212(f) only applies to individuals outside the U.S., not to people already here, so the administration couldn’t apply the provision to the many graduating students who stay in the U.S. while applying for their OPT extensions.” And according to David Ware, an immigration lawyer who specializes in student visa issues, any suspension or pause of OPT or H-1B would likely face litigation before it takes effect — meaning it might never take effect.


Stacy Blackman, founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, who has long worked to help international clients become students in U.S. business schools, says if Trump had suspended OPT, it would likely have been temporary. Her current international clients who are applicants for matriculation in fall 2020 or fall 2021 “recognize that a lot can change over the course of a two-year duration that is the typical business program length in the U.S.,” she adds.

Nor would OPT suspension have applied to every international applicant, Blackman says. Accordingly, she is seeing a surge in interest for the top-ranked U.S. MBA programs in the current cycle, including:

  • Internationals who already hold visas that allow them to attend U.S. MBA programs and participate in professional recruiting as a result of pre-MBA choices (for example, U.S.-based employer, U.S. college education);
  • Internationals who have multiple citizenships including U.S. citizenship;
  • Internationals who seek the elite brand of a U.S. MBA program to return to their countries of origin for their professional goals; and
  • Those who view access to U.S. education as the gateway to the American dream. “An international client of ours conveyed that he always aspired to come to America because he has known that over 80% of the world’s companies are headquartered here and career options in his home country are abysmal,” Blackman says. “He wants to be in the center of business and isn’t worried about the logistical immigration access he may experience years from now. For these ‘dreamer’ internationals who see the American educational system as uniquely career-defining, we are still seeing an unwavering focus on the top-tier U.S. MBA at this time.”

“There would be many young professionals who experience the burden imposed by a OPT suspension, no doubt,” Blackman says. “Of course, it would have adverse effects on recruiting for current international students in MBA programs. U.S. employer recruitment would adjust in the short term to prioritize students who don’t require the OPT. A lot can change in the months ahead, especially with the presidential elections imminent.”


At Yale, Anjani Jain, deputy dean for academic programs and professor in the practice of management, says any proposal to suspend OPT and H-1B is both “short-sighted and counterproductive” because it would effectively shut down the inflow of “some of the most brilliant international students to our universities.

“American universities have been for many decades an extraordinary magnet for global talent, especially in STEM disciplines and in business, and these graduates have made an outsized contribution to the ranks of CEOs and senior executives of every large American corporation,” Jain tells P&Q. “The contribution is even greater in scientific research. For instance, 40% of the American Nobel laureates since 2000 are immigrants, mostly with degrees from American universities. Shutting down OPT and H-1B would choke the flow of this talent, eventually hurting American innovation and economic dynamism.”

Adds Andrew Ainslie: “Every single university is doing everything they can with their representatives both locally and in Washington to point out the absolute insanity of this move. Let me tell you, Apple, Netflix, Microsoft, they already have offices all over the world, but they could easily move far bigger portions of their workforce to other countries. And they will go with the intellectual capital is.

“It’s crazy. It’s once more, short-term appealing to a base that is understandably concerned about the impact of this virus and the impact of Chinese trade on their livelihood and on their ability to find jobs. But, on the whole, the import of intellectual capital from the rest of the world has been a huge net creator of jobs, not a destroyer of jobs. And suspension of OPT or H-1B will simply force American companies to move their workforce overseas to other countries, and it will reduce the amount of innovation in this country, thereby also reducing the amount of high-paying jobs.”

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