Many in danger of losing jobs and job offers, as even USCIS receipts that used to arrive within two weeks now take more than two months.
Priya Karan, an Indian student who is on an F-1 visa applied for a work permit under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program more than two months ago. Since then, she has been anxiously waiting for her receipt from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is yet to arrive.
In the past, a student who delivered the application to a USCIS lockbox address routinely received a confirmation of receipt in seven to 14 days.
Because of delays at USCIS since the onset of Covid-19 last March, thousands —possibly tens of thousands of international students — like Karan are awaiting their OPT work permit. Many students who applied for OPT in early November are still awaiting their receipts from USCIS.
These international students’ cases are complicated by the fact that an F-1 visa holder can only stay in the United States for up to 60 days after their graduation, unless they get their OPT, or they transition into another visa. Students who file for OPT can remain in the country until they receive a decision from USCIS, even if the application is pending beyond the 60-day grace period.
The OPT program allows F-1 visa holders to work temporarily in their major areas of study for one year. Those students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can avail a 24-month OPT extension, meaning they can work in the United States for up to 29 months.
International student offices say the OPT delays first started last October even though USCIS did not acknowledge it till recently.
The current delays affect both first-time OPT applicants, as well as those who are applying for the two-year STEM extension.
According to rules, a student can continue to work for 180 days after the original EAD expires, if the student has filed a form I-765 for STEM OPT extension.
However, many such students who are already working as part of the STEM OPT and a number of students who are working as part of the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program, which allow F-1 holders to work as part of their school’s established curriculum, are in danger losing their jobs.
Neeraj Jha, a student from India who sent the OPT petition to the Dallas lockbox center, is a case in point. “My [CPT] expiration date is approaching soon for initial OPT and my employer has made it clear that I won’t be allowed to work past expiration date,” said Jha, who is also awaiting his receipt. “We have heard of how there is a delay in USCIS granting extensions and work permits. For someone on a student visa it gets doubly hard to during the Covid times so one can only hope that we get our training permits in a reasonable window for us to plan our future.”
The processing of OPT, like nearly all other petitions including naturalization petitions, have been affected by Covid, with USCIS working at a reduced manpower.
Nandini Nair, a partner at the Edison, NJ, -based immigration law firm Greenspoon Marder LLP, told The American Bazaar that there have been delays in processing all kinds of cases since March 2020 and “the back log just continues to grow.” She said, “The main reason for the backlog is closure of CIS offices due to the pandemic, CIS offices working at half capacity and the delays in working remotely for the remaining officers.”
READ: What are your options if H-1B visa is denied? (April 29, 2019)
Other lawyers said besides Covid the inordinate delays are also caused by recent USCIS’ reassignment of human resources to other cases, introduction of several new forms and expansion of new services like the new “fraud detection center.”
International student offices at universities say the OPT delays have been an irritant to both their offices and students they serve.
“For one, universities put a lot of time and effort into arranging internships for students prior to graduation,” said Culver Fortna, International Student Office Manager and Designated School Official at University of North America, in Fairfax, Virginia. “With delays in OPT processing, if a student does not get their paperwork in early, or if there is a Request For Evidence, the student’s internship opportunity may be delayed or, perhaps, even lost.”
Fortna said career services spend a lot of time with international offices to work out practical training opportunities, and “it is very frustrating when an internship gets ruined because the company is not able to hire the student due to the extended processing times of the EAD.”
Many OPT applicants are concerned about whether they can legally remain in the country beyond the 60-day grace period if they have not received the receipts for their OPT application.
In most cases they can, say immigration lawyers and universities.
“As long as the application was correctly and timely filed, the delay in the issuance of the receipt notice should not impact their immigration status,” said Nair.
The International Student Office of a New York university recently emailed its F-1 students that “students can consider their applications timely filed as long as they have tracking confirmation that their application was delivered to USCIS within your OPT eligibility window.”
However, many OPT applicants are still anxious, as not all of them are aware of the way USCIS functions and the various regulations surrounding their visas. Many of them end up checking their OPT status on the USCIS website several times a day.
Since a vast majority of these students don’t work and earn, they cannot afford to consult an immigration lawyer who’ll help them better navigate the system.
Last month, perhaps sensing a growing anxiety about OPT delays, USCIS addressed the delays by posting on Twitter.
The agency tweeted: “You may experience a delay of 4-6 weeks in receiving a receipt notice after filing with a USCIS lockbox. Delays may vary among form types and lockbox locations as some locations that have been severely impacted by COVID-19 must adhere to stricter local guidelines.”
Although as soon as the agency tweeted that a string of F-1 students awaiting their OPT posted messages that expressed that the delays have been up to 8-12 weeks for many.
However, an Indian student at University of Rochester told the American Bazaar that two of her friends who applied on November 2 received the receipts on February 2.
What should students do in the face of long delays?
Immigration lawyer Nair has the following advice: “F-1 students must be diligent about filing these applications as soon as the window opens for them. She added: “I urge to review their applications carefully to ensure they do not receive unnecessary rejections as we are currently seeing over 30 days of issuance of receipt notices.”
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)
Judge allows additional arguments on why the OPT program is lawful (July 3, 2019)