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Department of Homeland Security officials sent a clear message Wednesday that they are scrutinizing foreign students' and colleges' compliance with the rules of a program that allows international students to stay in the U.S. to work for one to three years after they graduate in a job directly related to their field of study.

Officials announced that they had arrested 15 international students who claimed to be employed by companies that don’t exist. The arrests resulted from an ongoing Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation, termed Operation OPTical Illusion, targeting fraudulent use of the OPT, or optional practical training, program.

Ken Cuccinelli, the senior official performing the duties of the DHS deputy secretary, said during a press briefing that officials had identified more than 1,110 students who were violating the terms of their immigration status and that work permits for about 700 of those students were being revoked. He said permits for the other approximately 400 students are due to expire within the next two months.

An ICE spokeswoman said the students were determined to be out of status "by failing to report an employer within 121 days" or by failing to obtain employment.

Cuccinelli focused his public comments on the issue of students working in jobs outside their field of study, which is not permitted under the OPT regulations.

“If they are far afield from that field of study they are not qualifying for the work permits, they are not qualifying to stay in the United States, and that’s what ICE is policing,” he said.

Close to a quarter million international students participated in OPT in 2018-19, according to data from the Institute of International Education. Participation in the program has grown rapidly in recent years.

Cuccinelli framed ICE’s enforcement efforts in terms of opening up jobs for American workers during a time when the U.S. is grappling with high unemployment.

“The president has taken a wide array of actions to ensure that the American labor market is clear for American workers to get back to work first. And one simple way to do that is simply to enforce our laws as they relate to foreign workers in our country,” Cuccinelli said.

Higher education groups have long been concerned that the Trump administration might curtail the OPT program.

The administration has not made changes to the OPT program to date, but it has introduced new rules to narrow eligibility for the H-1B skilled worker visa program, which many former international students pursue after they finish OPT. A number of colleges filed suit this week to challenge the H-1B restrictions.

The Trump administration has also proposed a new rule, opposed by colleges, that would limit the duration of student visas to between two and four years. Students who want or need to stay longer would have to apply for extensions.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Cuccinelli also warned of coming actions against DSOs or designated school officials, employees of individual colleges who are responsible for maintaining international students' records in a federal government database and overseeing their institutions’ compliance with federal student visa regulations, including the OPT regulations. 

Cuccinelli said DHS expects to terminate "a fair number" of designated school officials. “What we have seen in this area is what I would call not likely complicit, but a willful ignorance or a level of negligence that leads us down the path of terminating their role as designated school officials,” he said.

Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, an association of college leaders that advocates for welcoming immigration policies, said the administration’s approach "shows a fundamental misunderstanding of [the] OPT program and betrays the values of international education more generally."

"International students contribute intellectually, economically, culturally and socially to our campuses and communities," she said. "Research on OPT has shown that participation in OPT increases innovation and job opportunities, they create jobs, and spur technological innovation. International students do not displace American workers."

Feldblum said although the ICE action only targets a small number of OPT participants, Cuccinelli's remarks "also appeared to have as their aim to generate fear among and cast aspersions on the many dedicated DSOs and other staff who are working to support students, international education and their institutions."

Esther D. Brimmer, the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, condemned Cuccinelli's comments about DSOs as "an unsubstantiated and reckless attack."

"It is not the responsibility of DSOs to investigate international students’ OPT employers," Brimmer said. "Threats to terminate certain DSOs for violating a duty that is not theirs is unnecessarily punitive. The fact is, DSOs work hard every day to comply with the law and advise their international students while responding to an ever-changing environment."

"Despite the vagueness of this latest announcement, what is clear is that this administration feels justified in making international students, and now the school officials that support them, scapegoats for the nation’s economic woes, at a time when it can ill afford to do so," she added.

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