Several American universities are expanding the scope of their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an attempt to circumvent U.S. immigration regulations, which allows international students who major in STEM subjects to stay in the country two years longer than counterparts who major in the humanities. New York University, for example, now includes journalism, classics, and drama therapy under its STEM umbrella.
NYU is one of a number of universities exploiting a U.S. immigration policy that requires most international students to leave the country a year after finishing their studies—but permits those who studied STEM disciplines to work for an additional two years. The policy is part of the Department of Homeland Security's Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which aims to shore up the United States' supply of engineers and tech workers.
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The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign students seeking the STEM exemption—it ballooned to nearly 70,000 in 2018 from just over 2,000 in 2008 as the University of California, Berkeley, Boston University, California State University, and others have classified journalism, media studies, and digital media arts as STEM programs.
CSU said that it followed DHS guidelines when it made its decision to label certain programs as STEM. None of the other schools responded to requests for comment.
While many schools have moved to classify subjects like economics and business as STEM fields, few have exploited the existing loophole as much as NYU. The New York school now insists that hundreds of subjects—from physics and chemistry to journalism and classical civilization—are STEM programs.
The introduction of foreign workers into the U.S. labor market has come at the expense of American workers, according to immigration attorney Sara Blackwell, who told the Washington Free Beacon that the DHS program increases competition for domestic workers and depresses wages because employers are exempt from paying Medicare and Social Security taxes for international students.
"If an American student and a foreign student with the exact same grades go to an employer, that employer has a lot of incentive to hire the foreigner over the Americans," she said. "At the same time, your parents who are now getting into the Social Security and Medicare age are going to be at a disadvantage because the employer doesn't have that money in that pot."
On paper, the DHS is supposed to regularly monitor American universities. But such audits rarely occur, according to Lora Ries, a former DHS official and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Ries said the department responsible for enforcing the provisions is underfunded and deterred by the potential public relations fallout that a crackdown would elicit.
"Because that ICE office is not heavily resourced, the compliance aspect of it and the monitoring is lacking," she said. "And, you know, is ICE going to kick out some well known university from this program? Imagine the flak they would take for that."
A report published by the ombudsman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) found that the program is "vulnerable to fraud" due to understaffing—one ICE employee is responsible for as many as 240 schools. The report also found that the program exhibits "significant vulnerabilities" that allow it to act as a conduit for Chinese espionage. Chinese students are the top beneficiaries of the OPT program as they represent more than one in three international students studying in the United States.
"While OPT was created with the benign intention of offering foreign students the opportunity to gain work experience in their area of study … it is currently being used by government actors from countries such as the PRC as a means of conducting espionage and technology transfer through some portion of the many thousands of foreign nationals who have obtained OPT employment in the United States," the report found.
Some schools appear to have anticipated potential legal consequences for exploiting the OPT loophole. Berkeley, for example, provides a template letter to all international students to submit to federal authorities to "avoid any confusion by USCIS." Rachelle Peterson, the director of policy at the National Association of Scholars, said that schools are incentivized to play "fast and loose with visa rules" to boost international student admissions.
"‘STEM' means whatever it takes to keep high-paying international students pouring in. The effort by NYU and others to expansively define STEM demonstrates the verbal gymnastics colleges and universities regularly engage in to pad their bottom lines," Peterson said. "Colleges and universities frequently see our nation's visa rules as a system to game for their own financial benefit."