- Processing of work authorisations for foreign graduates who plan to stay and work in the US through the Optional Practical Training programme has been significantly delayed this year
- In previous years, applications were generally processed within 90 days, but this year some files have been delayed for up to five months or more
- The backlog is causing widespread concern among students and educators, and US government officials have said they have a plan in place to return to more typical processing times
There has been a dramatic increase in international student participation in Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US over the last several years. The programme allows authorised foreign students to stay and work in the United States for up to 12 months following graduation. Those graduating from STEM fields have benefitted from two executive orders, the first in 2008 and a second in 2016, that provided for extended work terms – ultimately allowing STEM graduates to stay for an additional 24 months and up to three years in total.
Pew Research reported last year that over the 12 years between 2004 and 2016, roughly 1.5 million foreign graduates were able to stay and work in the US through the OPT programme – more than half of which were alumni of STEM programmes (science, technology, engineering, and math).
In fact, growth in OPT numbers has buoyed overall foreign enrolment counts in the US over the last few years. The number of OPT participants in 2017/18 rose by nearly 16% year-over-year to reach just over 203,000 (out of a total foreign enrolment of roughly 1.1 million that year). And that was on the heels of 20% growth the previous year. As those figures suggest, graduates on OPT placements are still counted in foreign enrolment totals in the US. Absent that OPT growth, however, total academic enrolments actually declined marginally last year, down 1.3% from 2016/17.
This is all important context for the reports this year of extended processing delays for international students applying for US work authorisations through the OPT programme.
Students may file their applications up to 90 days before graduation, and those applications have typically been processed within 60 to 90 days. This year, however, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is projecting processing times of up to five months, a delay that officials have attributed to a backlog in the system arising from “a surge in employment authorisation requests.” Students are now reporting lost internship and employment opportunities as a result of the extended processing times this year.
“Students have written petitions and panicked letters to leaders of some of the top universities in the country as their internship start dates have come and gone with no word from the federal government,” the New York Times reported recently. “Recent graduates of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism are pushing back start dates for internships…Students at Princeton have had job offers rescinded…At Yale, students scrambled to enrol in a newly created course that would allow the university to approve their summer employment.”
The president of Princeton University, along with nearly 30 other educational leaders, recently sent an open letter to the US Congress outlining their concerns around visa processing.
“Over the past several years, we have observed a disturbing increase in the number – and length – of impediments put in the path of our international students, faculty, and staff,” says the joint letter. “Some of our schools have experienced decreases in foreign student enrolment and all of our schools have encountered an increasingly log-jammed immigration system that is impacting our ability to recruit…Simply put, as it becomes more difficult for foreign students and academics to study and work in the United States, many of them are turning to other options.”
The presidents’ letter specifically calls government attention to the delays in OPT work authorisations, noting that, “Processing times for OPT applications have increased from a previous maximum of 90 days in 2016 to 3.5 – 5.5 months today. Processing times in this range create an enormous burden for students. The consequence of these delays is that students are unable to begin their job or programme on time and, in many instances, they may lose out on the position altogether.”
Some observers trace the delays in work permit processing to a 2017 policy change by the US Department of Homeland Security which eliminated a long-standing performance standard that all such applications be processed within a 90-day window.
For its part, USCIS acknowledges the extraordinary delays this year and officials have said that they have “implemented a plan to address this and return to standard processing times soon.”
The broader context for this most recent delays is a growing body of concerns around delays in visa processing for foreign students hoping to study in the US, and also the Trump administration’s stated intention to introduce reforms for the OPT programme to “revise the practical training options available to nonimmigrant students on F and M visas.”
The extent and nature of these reforms are not yet clear but any changes that would restrict student access to the programme or place additional demands on employers would clearly be of concern to students, educators, and other stakeholders.
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