There are about one million foreign students in higher ed in the U.S. today. It is about double from the mid 2000s. According to Pew Research, Between 2004 and 2016, nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities continued after graduation to work here Optional Practical Training program (OPT). More than half (53%) of the foreign graduates approved for employment in specialized STEM fields.
David North in 2010 described a five-step process by which a foreign student gains a green card using OPT.
Step One: The first step for these would-be migrants is to secure admission to a U.S. graduate program, which leads to a student visa (F-1 in most cases). The best applicants get tuition remission and a graduate assistantship from the first day. Some others must pay their own way for the first term, and only then does financial assistance materialize.
Step Two: A crucial moment in the career of the would-be H-1B comes during the first summer, when the students are free to — and encouraged to — work off campus. (Their F-1 visas allow such employment, nominally if it has something to do with their graduate program.)
Step Three: Move from the campus into a H-1B job (temporary skilled worker). But “optional practical training” or OPT applies to newly-graduating F-1 students. The duration allowed was revised in 2008 29 months, then later to 36 months.
Step Four: If the graduating worker started out as a OPT version of F-1, this step four is to obtain a H-1B visa. Per Pew Research, nearly 14%, or 118,000, of all capped H-1B visas approved between fiscal 2010 and 2016 were given to advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities.
Step Five: This final step, securing a green card through a permanent labor certification sought by the worker’s employer, is again the product of a process in which merit, career-building skills, and luck all play a role. Some employers of H-1B workers actively use the program as a bridge to green card status for some of their workers, and other simply use it as a source of relatively short-term, talented, but inexpensive labor.