You have to hand it to the Business Roundtable (BRT) – an organization comprised of the CEOs of America’s largest companies. It’s not often that a lobby group puts out a study that undercuts its own message in no less than three ways. But that’s exactly what the Roundtable has accomplished with its new report warning about the consequences of Trump administration actions deemed likely to reduce the numbers of foreign students that come to study in the United States.
The focus of the BRT’s concern is the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows foreign students to work temporarily for employers for years after their graduation. The Roundtable and other supporters of issuing lots of these visas portray them as a valuable way for domestic U.S. businesses to improve their (and the nation’s) competitiveness by increasing their access to the best talent on the planet. As a result, they argue, programs like OPT boost these students’ incentives to study in the United States and thereby become eligible to enhance its well-being to begin with.
Opponents charge that OPT hands employers yet another means of hiring less expensive foreigners over equally capable but more expensive native-born workers, and thus suppressing wages for all workers in the technology-heavy industries in which these visa holders are highly concentrated. OPT and programs like it have also been criticized (including by the Trump administration) for enabling large numbers of students from China gain cutting-edge tech skills that Beijing can ultimately used to undermine American economic and national security interests, and for providing these students and the Chinese government with golden opportunities to spy on American industry.
The BRT’s case for the biggest possible OPT program rests entirely on its supposed economic benefits. But these exclusively economic arguments are their own Achilles Heel.
First, the damage the BRT claims the U.S. economy will suffer from a hypothetical (but in my view, reasonably assumed) 35 percent reduction in OPT visas by 2020 and a consequent 60 percent decline in participation in OPT by 2020 is laughably small. Chiefly, by 2028, according to the BRT, the economy will be a cumulative $52 billion smaller in inflation-adjusted terms than otherwise, and the cumulative number of jobs lost by native-born Americans will hit 255,000.
These numbers may sound big, but keep in mind: They represent not annual losses but the estimated total damage over ten years from OPT cutbacks. And they’re laughably miniscule given that the United States currently produces goods and services (the activity that generates the “size of the economy,” or gross domestic product, figure) at an annual, rate of nearly $18.7 trillion in real terms, and that this economy is currently supporting nearly 150 million jobs.
Second, logically speaking, the reverse proposition is also true: If the economic losses resulting from cutting back on the OPT program are so infinitesimal, then so is the economic contribution made by the program at its current size. In fact, it’s reasonable to conclude from the BRT report that if OPT was eliminated completely, the U.S. economy (rightly) wouldn’t even notice.
Third, the BRT’s complete neglect of the national security dangers posed by the OPT program looks like an implicit confession that they’re considerable. Are the BRT’s CEOs telling us that they shouldn’t be considered at all? That reducing them is worth no cost at all? That enhancing national security isn’t even worth the itsy-bitsy price that the BRT itself reveals OPT curbs would entail?
Of course, none of these conclusions reflects well on the Roundtable, or on the corporate Cheap Labor Lobby of which it’s a card-carrying member. That’s why I’m hoping that immigration and national security realists share it with as many recipients – including government decision-makers – as possible. If this is the best that the Open Borders movement’s Big Business branch can do to tout the OPT program, it’s fate will quickly be sealed.