Senator Charles Grassley, a Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, has requested the Comptroller General of the United States and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to “fully investigate” certain aspects of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The OPT program allows foreign national students who have completed their studies in the United States to lawfully obtain employment authorization for one additional year to learn more about their area of study.

Senator Grassley’s May 31, 2012, letter asks the GAO to “fully investigate” the use of the OPT program, and to identify how student employment is tracked, what weaknesses exist with the program, and ways to improve program procedures and policies.

Senator Grassley notes that there has been an “upward trend” in approved applications for OPT and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has denied only 2-3 percent of all applications submitted. He believes these statistics imply that the OPT program is “full of loopholes with few controls in place to determine if students are actually working, working where they claimed to be, or working in their field of study.”

Senator Grassley has identified his three main points of concern. First, he would like additional information on how DHS communicates with each college and university that participates in the OPT program and the specific criteria used by these institutions to decide whether a student is eligible for OPT. To this end, he also has requested additional information as to how DHS made the decision to expand the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program, which extends OPT beyond the one-year period for individuals in certain STEM fields.

Next, Senator Grassley requested information on whether the OPT and STEM-extension programs may undermine other U.S. visa programs or negatively impact American students who seek employment in one of these fields.

Finally, Senator Grassley implies that the OPT program may be a threat to national security because potential terrorists can remain in the United States instead of returning to their home countries. He admits that he has no statistics to support this concern other than one incident where a naturalized U.S. citizen, who participated in the OPT program many years prior, attempted an attack on Times Square after he obtained his citizenship. The Senator, pursuing this line of inquiry, asks for increased oversight to enhance the program’s integrity, even though the alleged link between foreign national student workers and potential terrorism is a completely unsubstantiated and unsupported notion.

The Senator has requested that DHS consider instituting substantive improvements to the OPT program to better address these issues. Whether or not such changes are on the horizon is unknown at this time. Jackson Lewis will continue to monitor this situation and alert our clients should DHS propose any changes to the current OPT program.