According to reports, ICE has started random on-site inspections of employers of F-1 students who are STEM OPT.
Nitin Mathur, an Indian student on Optional Practical Training, spends most of his leisure hours these days browsing through various immigration WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Mathur, who arrived in the US a few years ago, for an engineering course is currently on an OPT, which allows international degree students in the US to work for a certain period.
According to the website Law360, ICE started random employer site visits targeting STEM OPT students in July and “these visits have picked up speed since then.”
The website JDSupra.com says that visits are intended to “confirm that the information reported on the F-1 student’s Form I-983 is accurate and being executed as part of the employer’s training and learning program.”
Normally, ICE is “notifying employers at least 48 hours in advance” of the visit, it says, adding that, in “instances where ICE is responding to a specific complaint or other indication of noncompliance with STEM OPT regulations, the agency may conduct the site visit” without notifying the employer.
“During the site visit, ICE may review the training plan, the employee’s pay records, the Form I-983, the employee’s work area and other parts of the premises, etc,” the website says. “In addition, ICE may conduct interviews with other personnel, in addition to the STEM OPT employees and their managers.”
The visit may last up to 5 hours.
Mathur fears that, with an increased scrutiny on the Optional Practical Training program, his part-time job may come under scanner. He got the current job after a long search and it was the best job he could get in his rural Midwestern state.
He has heard that many unsuspecting students like him are now bearing the brunt of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration. “When I was looking for a job, many local students suggested many clerical options but I waited months before I could find a job that matches somewhat with the course of study but despite all my best intentions I am fearful that the authorities may single me out,” Mathur told The American Bazaar.
His fears may not be unfounded.
Late last month, on September 27, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) policy guidance. It stresses that a student’s employment during the OPT period should be directly related to the major area of study.
However, students on OPT say that proving this is not an easy task. The burden of proving that their practical training opportunity is directly related to their area of study lies with the F-1 students, and it must be reviewed by the Designated School Official (DSO). “When the DSO has concerns about whether the job directly relates to the student’s major area of study, additional documentation may be required to demonstrate the connection,” the new guidance says.
Immigration experts say if there is ambiguity in DSO’s classification of the job title, it may even lead to the USCIS rejecting students’ prospective H-1B work visa, as the agency may categorize it as a non-specialty occupation when it comes to issuing a work visa.
Now with the reports that ICE has begun conducting random inspections, there are genuine concerns amongst many F-1 students, some of whom wonder if the DSO is able to accurately examine the nature of relationship between their OPT jobs and their subject of study.
“OPT is often used as a first step towards getting a H-1B visa,” says immigration attorney Emily Neumann. “The scrutiny already targets international students before they can attain a H-1B visa. The move does limit legal immigration.”
She sees it as a potential hindrance to a student obtaining H-1B visa.
A negative review may lead to a student losing the F-1 status and hence may abruptly end his journey toward obtaining an H-1B work visa.
What are your options if H-1B visa is denied? (April 29, 2019)
F-1 visa STEM students will be given OPT for 3 years (February 9, 2016)
The fading charm of the F-1 student visa in Trump era (August 26, 2019)