The American Bazaar: "F1 visa students may be allowed to work in the US for 6 years after February 12, 2016"

by Joseph McKeown

A District of Columbia judge recently ruled that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must vacate a 2008 rule that granted F-1 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students Optional Practical Training (OPT) extensions for seventeen months beyond the normal twelve months of OPT. Meanwhile, in an unrelated move, as part of President Obama’s executive actions the DHS has proposed regulations that would potentially allow STEM students to stay in the US for a total of six years.

The ruling on the seventeen-month STEM extensions by US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle was partially in favor of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, who had pursed a case against F-1 STEM students to reduce their STEM extension to twelve months from seventeen, arguing that the STEM OPT extensions generated unfair competition by creating a cheaper category of workers. Judge Huvelle ruled that the DHS must vacate the rule since it did not provide the necessary public notice and comment.

Since invalidating the rule effective immediately would create a "major labor disruption” for technology-related industries as well as "substantial hardship" for thousands of international students, Judge Huvelle imposed a six-month stay until February 12, 2016, a move that should allow DHS to correct and implement the necessary public notice and comment.

In the end, this ruling may not have much impact because of the White House and DHS’s plans to expand and extend the OPT program for students in STEM fields. While the White House or DHS have not released further information about their plans, a letter from earlier this summer from Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressing concerns about the DHS plans, arguably reveals the proposed STEM changes.

Based on their briefing with Grassley, the DHS may be proposing regulations that would lengthen the OPT STEM extension period from seventeen to twenty-four months and allow students to take advantage of the STEM extension at two different times in their academic careers instead of only once, potentially “for a total of up to six years of postgraduation employment in student status[.]” STEM students could potentially be eligible for three years of OPT after undergraduate studies in a STEM field and three additional years after postgraduate studies in a STEM field.

Grassley, in his June letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, said that the proposed change to OPT STEM would permit “foreign graduates of non-STEM U.S. degree programs to receive the 24-month extension of the OPT period, even if the STEM degree upon which the extension is based is an earlier degree and not for the program from which the student is currently graduating (e.g. student has a bachelor’s in chemistry and is graduating from an M.B.A. program).”

"The proposed new regulations, while still being internally discussed, are irresponsible and dangerous considering the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in March 2014 finding that the program was full of inefficiencies, susceptible to fraud, and that the department was not adequately overseeing it,” Grassley writes.

A spokesperson for Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division said in a statement in Inside Higher Ed that it could not elaborate on its OPT plans. “ICE is in the midst of drafting proposed rules for notice and public comment regarding foreign students with degrees in STEM fields from U.S. universities. Due to rule-making requirements, we cannot discuss the content of that proposed rule at this time,” the statement said.

Extending the OPT period for STEM students would be a welcome move within the international student community, the technology and science industry which employs many STEM workers, and among immigration practitioners, as the extended time would allow more opportunity to file H-1B petitions when the cap has been reached. At this point, however, we can only wait and see what if any changes will be enacted.

UPDATE DECEMBER 3, 2015: The US government has received nearly 35,000 comments on its plan to extend the OPT for STEM students from twenty-nine months to thirty-six months. The comments period closed last month. As was true with the initial ones, the majority of comments received support extending the program, which is not surprising given that as of September this year over 34,000 students were in the United States on a STEM OPT extension, many of whom would be forced to leave if the US government doesn't continue to bring the program into compliance with the law.