While Canada welcomes international students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump officials are using the crisis to impose stiffer restrictions on those planning to study and work in America.
The Trump government has indicated it will soon restrict, suspend or completely eliminate Optional Practical Training (OPT).
OPT allows foreign students to work in the United States for twelve (12) months, usually after graduation, and twenty-four (24) additional months in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Many universities view OPT as a way for international students to enhance their education in the U.S by applying what they have learned in classes.
It also provides a more realistic opportunity to obtain one of the scarce H-1B visas by giving students more than one chance to get a spot in the annual H-1B lottery of 85,000 petitions.
“International students will stop seeing the U.S as a destination for education,” said Ravi Shankarr, assistant provost and director of the international services office at the University of Rochestter, who told Melissa Korn and Michelle Hackman of the Wall Street Journal he expects international students enrollment would decline if OPT opportunities are “curtailed.”
The Trump administration and Canadian government approach to international students couldn’t be more different.
On May 14, 2020, the federal government of Canada announced outstanding flexibility for foreign students, including preserving their capability to work after graduation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a great impact on international students,” said Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada(IRCC) in a statement. “In response to the travel restrictions that are in place, many higher educational institutions are offering their courses online. Higher educational institutions and prospective international students alike are considering their approach to the fall semester. Both have sought guidance and supports from IRCC regarding eligibility for the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) for students starting at an approved DLI this fall.”
“Under normal situations, requirements for the PGWPP limit an international student’s ability to pursue a program through distance learning, from inside or outside Canada, and time spent studying outside Canada is removed from the length of the work permits for which they are eligible,” continued the statement. “Post-Graduation Work Permit eligibility will not be affected for foreign students whose fall 2020 courses will be online due to coronavirus pandemic. This is in line with guidance provided to foreign students already studying in Canada or whose program had a spring or summer starting date.”
The IRCC made another accommodation: “Students in this situation may begin their courses while outside Canada and complete up to fifty per cents of their program through distance learning if they can’t travel to Canada sooner.
Furthermore, they will not have time removed from the length of a future post-graduation work permits for studies concluded outside of Canada, up to December 31, 2020.”
Foreign students are allowed to enter Canada if they have “an up to date study permit, or were approved for a study permit on or prior March 18, 2020.” A student would still have to pass a health check by the airline before taking a flight to Canada and “must have a plan to quarantine for fourteen (14) days when you come to Canada . . . even if you have no symptoms.”
The federal government of Canada has made clear it values international students. “International education represents an important economic benefit to Canada, with international students contributing $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and supporting approximating 170,000 jobs in 2018,” said the IRCC statement. “foreign students are also often excellent candidates to apply to stay in Canada permanently, with about 54,000 former students becoming Canadian permanent residents in 2018.”
The Trump administration’s expected move to limits the ability of foreign students to work after graduation has shocked U.S. universities and employers. In a letter to the president and cabinet officials, 324 United States employers and trade, industry, and higher education associations and groups wrote, “As the number of U.S. tertiary education STEM degrees attained by F-1 non-immigrants has steadily increased, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, to include the STEM OPT extension, has correspondingly become an important pipeline for the U.S. STEM workforce.” The businesses and organizations require the Trump led government not to impose new restrictions on foreign students.
The letter quotes a National Foundation for American Policy study by Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida, who accessed nearly a decade of data on OPT and concluded, “The results shows that the OPT program does not negatively impact on job opportunities for American workers in STEM fields.”
“The relative number of international students approved for OPT program is negatively related to various measures of the unemployment rate among American STEM workers,” according to Zavodny. “A good percentage of foreign students approved for OPT, relative to the number of American workers, is associated with a lower unemployment rate among those American workers.”
The administration’s justification for introducing any new restrictions is likely to raise outcries, said political analysts. Statistics indicates the unemployment rate for individuals in computer occupations fell from three per cents in January 2020 to 2.8% in April 2020, according to an analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ recent Population Survey by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP). “The stats raise questions about the Trump administration’s ability to use the unemployment rates for computer professionals to justify the new restriction being considered for H-1B visa holders and foreign students working on OPT,” notes the NFAP analysis.
Immigration rules make a difference, especially ones that could prevent international students from making their careers in the U.S. If Canada embraces and welcomes international students while the Trump administration shuts America’s doors, then many of the world’s most talented young population will learn to sing “O Canada” rather than “O say can you see.”