F-1 Students in the U.S. pursuing STEM degrees have reason to cheer! The U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Service released a pre-publication of its final rule, to be officially published on Friday, March 11, 2016. The Final Rule extends the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program from 17 months to 24 months. The revised STEM OPT program will go into effect on May 10, 2016. It will impact multiple groups of F-1 students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S. who have applied or will apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
USCIS has also extended the rules permitting maximum number of days allowable for an F-1 student to be unemployed while on OPT.
• 90 days max unemployment if on OPT (no change)
• 60 days max unemployment if on STEM OPT (an increase by 30 days)
1. Current F-1 students who previously obtained a U.S. STEM degree:
The rule permits an F-1 student who is currently participating in a 12-month period of post-completion OPT based on a non-STEM degree to use a prior, eligible STEM degree from a U.S. institution of higher education as a basis to apply for a STEM OPT extension. Both degrees (STEM degree and non-STEM degree) must have been issued from accredited educational institutions. The institutions must have been accredited at the time the student attended those institutions. The practical training opportunity must be directly related to the previously obtained STEM degree.
2. Current F-1 students who are on a 12 month OPT STEM EAD and have not yet applied for a STEM OPT extension:
USCIS will begin accepting new, 24-month STEM OPT applications on or after May 10, 2016. In order for an F-1 student to be eligible for requesting 24-months of STEM OPT, the employer must agree to additional rules related to the program.
Employers must complete Form I-983, Training Plan for STEM OPT students providing details on the training plan, for review by the F-1 student’s Designated School Official (DSO). (Form I-983 is currently being developed by USCIS. Instructions to the form can be viewed here.) Student compensation must be reported on this form. Employers must attest to the following:
Employer has sufficient resources and personnel available to provide training.
STEM OPT student will not replace a full-time or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker.
The opportunity will assist in the student’s training goals.
Employers must also provide a designated person to evaluate the student on an annual basis.
Additionally, employers may be subject to work site visits by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Notice of 48-hours will be provided to employers unless there is a complaint or other evidence of non-compliance.
3. Current F-1 students who are on a 12 month OPT STEM EAD and have a STEM OPT extension already pending with USCIS:
F-1 students who have already submitted their EAD applications requesting 17 months of STEM OPT may have an opportunity to request a total of 24 months instead, without having to submit a new EAD application. To be eligible, the F-1 students must meet the following criteria:
The EAD application must still be pending on or after May 10, 2016. USCIS will automatically issue a Request for Evidence (RFE) to allow those students to amend their application if they can demonstrate eligibility for the full 24-months. The RFE will not request additional fees or request a new application be submitted.
In the RFE, USCIS will request an updated Form I-20 from the student’s DSO. The Form I-20 must be endorsed on or after May 10, 2016. A Form I-983 and other support documentation will also be required.
4. Current F-1 students who have already been issued a 17-month STEM OPT EAD:
Certain F-1 students who are already working on a STEM OPT EAD issued for 17 months may be able request the remaining 7 months of OPT validity period, provided they meet the following requirements:
F-1 students must file a new EAD application with USCIS, along with the filing fee and supporting documentation on or before August 8, 2016.
The new application must also be filed within 60 days from when the DSO entered the recommendation for 24-month STEM OPT extension into the SEVIS database.
The new application should include the Form I-983 Training Plan and an updated Form I-20.
The F-1 student must also have at least 150 days remaining on the current 17-month STEM OPT EAD, at the time the application is submitted to USCIS, in order to request the additional 7 months.
The F-1 student must also be in a valid period of OPT.