Training program keeps international students in the U.S. after graduation

(Raymundo Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

(Raymundo Aguirre/Borderzine.com)

EL PASO — International students graduating from U.S. colleges can extend their stay legally and work in this country for one year by applying for the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT).

“(OPT) is the only way we as international students can stay working legally in the US,” said Fernando Hernández, who graduated from UTEP this year with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems. “I am planning to stay in the U.S., going back to México will be like walking backwards.”

OPT offers F-1 visa students the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to work for a 12-month period in a field related to their degree. According to Carol Martin, assistant director of International Programs at the University of Texas at El Paso, the goal of OPT is not to extend the students time in the U.S., but to give them an opportunity to gain work experience in their field of study.

“The goal of OPT is to give them practical training to help them be a better graduate,” Martin said. “The point of OPT is not for them to be in the U.S. as long as they can and to get a job, that is why it is not called optional practical employment. They call it training, because it is really seen as a hands-on way to gain skill that they are going to need to be more marketable in there (their) chosen profession.”

Hernández, who will work as a financial representative at Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, said there are social and economic reasons why he wants to continue his career in the U.S.

“México is a very difficult country to stay in. There a lot of problems going on over there,” Hernández said. “I think this is the best opportunity I could ever have and the jobs in the U.S. are better paid.”

Hernández is one of the 97 UTEP students who applied for OPT this year, a significantly low number compared to 163 and 246 requests in 2010 and 2009, respectively, with the vast majority of the students getting accepted in to the OPT program.

According to Leah More, international student advisor at UTEP’s Office of International Programs, several reasons could explain why there is a decline in OPT requests, but she believes the main one is the current U.S. economy.

“It’s probably due to the poor economy in the U.S. right now. It is harder for international students to get jobs than before, because it’s harder for everyone to get jobs than before,” Moore said. “My guess is fewer people want to apply for OPT, because they expect difficulty in finding work.”

More said her office doesn’t keep records on how many of the OPT applications were from Mexican students, they just keep an overall number of international students from UTEP. According to UTEP’s Office of Admissions and Recruitment website, more than 2,000 foreign students enroll at UTEP each semester from countries including Mexico, Egypt, Canada and India.

Adriana Gomez-Licón, a 2009 UTEP graduate who was enrolled in the OPT program and a former El Paso Times reporter who covered the drug-related violence in México, said she believes the violence in México has had an impact on the number of Mexican students attending universities in the U.S. as well as their motivation to enroll in OPT.

“(The reason) the numbers are down I think has to do with several factors. One of them is the number of Mexican international students is down at UTEP,” Gomez-Licon said. “That could be because UTEP is not doing as much of an outreach effort as they used to because of the drug-violence. They don’t allow recruiters into México anymore and Mexican students don’t hear about UTEP.”

Gomez-Licón said another major cause could be the impact the drug-violence has had on the Mexican economy.

“Another reason is not a lot of Mexican students can afford UTEP anymore, also because of the drug violence. Extortions have hit hard the middle to upper class in places like Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua City, traditionally the cities that send the most international students to UTEP.”

Mirel Argueta, who graduated from UTEP in 2010 with a master’s degree in communication, said while her main goal is to continue working and getting her education in the U.S., the drug violence in México is one reason why she would prefer to stay in America.

“It (drug violence) has a big affect on my decision to stay here in the U.S. It is always in the back of my mind,” Argueta said. “I mean people don’t want to go back to Juárez to find a job because they are afraid … Now that my year is almost done, I am worried about going back, so I am thinking of getting another master’s or starting my doctoral degree.”

Argueta said she believes that the drug violence is not the only reason why the number of OPT requests at UTEP have dropped. As a student that is in the OPT program, she said that it is hard to stay after the year ends due to the hardship of finding a job and the high cost of work visas that many employers are not willing to pay after the year students are allowed to stay in the U.S.

“It’s hard for international students to get a job because of the economy and employers are not willing to hire international students, because they know you have a limited time that you are able to stay in the U.S. So they think that it is easier to just hire a person from the U.S.,” Argueta said. “It is also very expensive for an employer to keep an international student because it is very expensive to pay for the work visa and everything else they need to continue working in the U.S.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2008 there were approximately 70,000 students of all nationalities in OPT and, of those, about 23,000 were studying in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) fields. Some of these students would be selected for an H-1B to start in October of the same years. Others may choose to continue their education, while some will depart the United States. ICE and USCIS estimate that approximately 12,000 will take advantage of the STEM extension.”

President Barack Obama delivered a speech May 10 at the Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso to discuss immigration reform and focused on the need to keep international student studying at U.S. colleges working in America.

“Reform will also help to make America more competitive in the global economy. Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities” Obama said. “But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States.  Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition.”

While doing OPT, Hernández hopes the 12-months will give him not only work experience in his field, but also time to apply for U.S. residency.

“The best scenario is to get the residence, but it is a long process, after one year of obtaining the OPT then you have to get a work visa,” Hernández said. “After the 12 months, I am planning to get the work visa and then in the long-run I will apply for my U.S. residence.”

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