Graduate students write letter to Trump in support of OPT and international students

Trump’s June 22 executive order does not suspend OPT

Graduate students from MIT and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) wrote a June 15 letter to President Donald J. Trump in support of the Optional Practical Training program (OPT) and the STEM OPT extension for international students. The letter responded to Section 6 of Trump’s April 22 “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risk to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak.”

The letter was signed by over 70 student governments, including MIT’s Graduate Student Council (GSC) and Undergraduate Association. In addition to Trump, the letter was also addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, and Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia. 

The letter was authored by Benjamin Lane G, vice-chair of the GSC’s external affairs board, and Divyansh Kaushik, vice president for external affairs of the CMU Graduate Student Assembly.

Trump wrote in Section 6 of his April proclamation that Pompeo, Wolf, and Scalia would review nonimmigrant programs and recommend “other measures appropriate to stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritization, hiring, and employment of United States workers.”

The letter expressed concern that the Trump administration would review the OPT program and possibly suspend it. OPT is a period of temporary employment for international students with F-1 status during or after completing their studies. Students in STEM fields can apply for a 24-month extension to their post-completion OPT employment authorization.

Trump issued an executive order June 22 that suspends the entry of aliens holding H-1B, H-2B, or L visas, as well as certain aliens holding J visas through Dec. 31, 2020. The executive order did not suspend the OPT program.

The graduate students’ letter urged Trump to “maintain the OPT program and the STEM OPT extension in their entirety” citing that international students contributed nearly $45 billion and over 450,000 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2018-19 academic year. 

Kaushik said in an interview with The Tech that “students in OPT are actually filling critical skill gaps, particularly under STEM extension.”

The letter also stated that “immigrants and especially foreign students are a driving force behind the innovation and technology make the U.S. a great nation.” Thus, suspending the OPT and STEM extension and having international students return to their home countries would result in “their entrepreneurship and innovations” benefitting “those countries instead of the” U.S.

Lane said in the interview that international students should be more appreciated and that “it’s a global market for students, and if we’re not competing for them and showing them that we value them, then they’re just going to go to other countries, and other countries are going to benefit from it.”

Lane added that he and Kaushik have “heard a lot back from” members of the legislative branch to whom they sent the letter, including Senators Pat Toomey and Kamala Harris. Kaushik said that their letter was appreciated and that there has been “a lot of advocacy going on, particularly around OPT.”

Lane said that he and Kaushik wrote the letter to “make sure that student voices are heard.” He described another instance of graduate student advocacy in which MIT’s and CMU’s graduate organizations worked together in 2017 in response to possible graduate stipend taxes.

Both Lane and Kaushik emphasized student participation in advocacy. Kaushik said that students should “be the advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves.”