GAO report shows OPT is not Accountable to ICE


In February 2014, the Government Accountability Office published a report that found the Optional Practical Training program was operating with nearly no ICE oversight. Among some of the problems identified by the GAO was systematic fraud perpetrated by Designated School Officials (DSO), the high risk of overstays by individuals after their OPT expires, and over a quarter of OPT workers in food and retail service jobs whose occupation is not related to their field of study.

The GAO determined the ICE oversight was so lax that there was no way to determine how many OPTs were currently working the United States, and whether there was even cursory compliance with OPT regulations by participating schools and OPT workers.

Some of the key findings in the report are:  

  • As of November 2013, about 100,000 of the approximately 1 million foreign students in the United States (or about 10 percent) were approved to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) optional practical training (OPT).
  • GAO found that some schools “had attempted to exploit the immigration system by knowingly reporting that foreign students were fulfilling their visa requirements, such as attending school full-time, when they were not attending school or attending intermittently.” After being notified, ICE failed to adequately address the problem.
    •  “For example, in a 2012 case, according to an ICE investigator, a school charged students for an OPT recommendation on the Form I-20 and for keeping students in status once they had entered the country, without requiring school attendance. In another case, in 2012, ICE investigators initiated an investigation after they received a complaint about a school’s noncompliance with OPT requirements, such as students not working in their area of study. In particular, ICE investigators found that the DSOs at the school would submit fraudulent Form I-20s to recommend students for OPT; however, the foreign students were not using OPT to work jobs related to their areas of study (e.g., a nursing student working in a pizza parlor), which is not allowed under ICE regulations. In a third case, in 2011, ICE field office investigators initiated an investigation of a school on the basis of information received from CBP that indicated that one of the school’s DSOs was allegedly providing documentation authorizing students to work in jobs not related to their major areas of study.”
  • According to this chart 96% of OPT applicants are approved.

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  • Counterterrorism and Criminal Enforcement Unit and ICE field agents at all seven ICE offices included in review all stated their belief that OPT presented a risk for fraud.
    • “Specifically, senior CTCEU officials stated that OPT is at risk for fraud and noncompliance, in part, because it enables eligible foreign students to work in the United States for extended periods of time without obtaining a temporary work visa. In addition, ICE field office agents we interviewed stated that foreign students approved for OPT present a risk for becoming overstays because they are allowed to work and remain in the United States for 12 to 31 months after graduation from school.”

    • “CTCEU officials identified that a certain threshold, or percentage, of a school’s foreign student population approved for OPT may be a potential indicator of fraud involving OPT.”
  • ICE does not require information on how students’ jobs are related to their studies so ICE cannot determine whether an individual with OPT is “complying with ICE’s regulatory requirements.”
  • ICE officials “stated that many students engaged in OPT are working in food service or retail.” GAO looked at a sample of 158 students whose records indicated that they were employed in food or retail service. Of this sample, 44 (28%) of OPT workers in these occupations did not have records indicating that these jobs were related to their field of study.
  • “ICE does not have a mechanism to capture the date on which a student who was granted authorization actually started working or data on periods when a student is unemployed.”
  • ICE officials stated that “they have not fully enforced these regulatory limits [90 to 120 days] on unemployment.”
  • “ICE Does Not Monitor whether Foreign Students’ Authorized Employment Complies with ICE Regulations.”
  • GAO’s analysis “shows that 9 percent of student records have authorized post-completion OPT employment dates that exceed the regulatory limits of total approved OPT and 8 percent of student records will not complete their OPT employment by the regulatory limits… Furthermore, our analysis shows 10 percent of students engaged in 17-month STEM extension OPT had work approvals that exceeded the 17 months allowed by ICE regulations and policy, and 10 percent of students would not complete their OPT within 31 months from the end of their program.”
  • Since ICE has no genuine oversight of the program, individuals who have completed OPT after attending one school may leave the country, apply to another school for admission at their previous educational level, and start OPT over, in violation of ICE regulations.
Read the full report at
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