DHS Issues Final Rule Amending F-1 Regs, Breaks Record for Public Comments
This article was prepared with the assistance of ABIL, the Alliance of Business Immigration Lawyers, of which Laura Danielson is an active member.
On March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a final rule amending regulations to expand optional practical training (OPT) for students with U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) and create new obligations for F-1 students and F-1 employers starting May 10, 2016.
OPT is a form of temporary employment available to F-1 students (except those in English language training programs) that directly relates to a student’s major area of study in the United States. A student can apply to engage in OPT during or after completing his or her academic program. A student can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level (e.g., one 12-month OPT period at the bachelor’s level and another 12-month period at the master’s level). While school is in session, the student may work up to 20 hours per week pursuant to OPT.
DHS first introduced an extension of OPT for STEM graduates in a 2008 interim final rule. Under the 2008 rule, an F-1 student with a STEM degree from a U.S. institution of higher education could apply for an additional 17 months of OPT (17-month STEM OPT extension), provided that the employer from which the student sought employment was enrolled in and remained in good standing in the E-Verify employment eligibility verification program. On August 12, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the vacatur of the 2008 rule on procedural grounds and remanded the issue to DHS. The court stayed the vacatur until February 12, 2016, to give DHS the opportunity to issue a new rule related to STEM OPT extensions through notice-and-comment rulemaking.
On October 19, 2015, DHS published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to reinstate the STEM OPT extension, with changes intended to enhance the educational benefit afforded by the extension and to increase program oversight, including safeguards to protect U.S. workers. The rule received more than 50,500 comments—the most in DHS history. On January 23, 2016, the court gave DHS additional time to complete the rulemaking following review of public comments and to allow the Department to publish the rule with a 60-day delayed effective date to provide sufficient time for efficient transition to the new rule’s requirements.
DHS has now completed the final rule. Highlights include:
Extension period to increase from 17 to 24 months. Under the amended regulations, F-1 STEM students will be able to extend OPT for an additional 24 months beyond the initial 12 months, replacing the 2008 regulation that allowed F-1 STEM students to receive a 17-month extension of OPT, providing work authorization for employment related to their field of study.
New reporting requirements for F-1 students and university officials. New reporting requirements include: (1) a six-month validation requirement, confirming the F-1 student applicant’s application for work authorization through the OPT program; (2) an annual self-evaluation required of F-1 students, for designated school officials to review; and (3) an affirmative requirement for F-1 students to report any change in employment status or material departure from the adopted Training Plan. This is in addition to the requirement for F-1 employers to report similar changes to designated school officials within five business days, which remains in effect.
F-1 employer requirement to complete formal Training Plan with F-1 student. The new regulations will increase DHS oversight over the OPT program. F-1 employers must complete a formal Training Plan, Form I-983, and comply with new wage requirements. The formal Training Plan must include concrete learning objectives with proper oversight. F-1 employers must set out the terms and conditions of employment, including the specific duties, hours, and compensation.
As part of the Training Plan, F-1 employers must attest that the F-1 employee is paid a salary commensurate with similarly situated workers and that: “(1) it has sufficient resources and trained personnel available to provide appropriate training in connection with the specified opportunity; (2) the student will not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker; and (3) the opportunity will help the student attain his or her training objectives.”
DHS to conduct on-site visits. The new regulations state that DHS has discretion to conduct employer site visits to ensure that F-1 employers meet the requirements of the OPT program. Generally, DHS must provide notice 48 hours before an on-site inspection, unless the visit is conducted in response to a complaint or evidence of noncompliance.
Cap-gap extension language clarified. DHS has revised the cap-gap extension regulation to clarify that the extension for F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions and requests for change of status temporarily extends the OPT period until October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Additionally, the final rule states:
- Only students who earned a degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) may apply for a STEM OPT extension.
- Participating students who receive an additional qualifying degree from an accredited college or university can apply for a second STEM OPT extension.
- Participating students can use a previously earned qualifying degree to apply for a STEM OPT extension. The prior degree must not have already formed the basis of a STEM OPT extension and must be from a school that is both accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and certified by SEVP at the time of the student’s STEM OPT application. The student’s most recent degree must also be from an accredited and SEVP-certified institution.
- Students must work at least 20 hours per week per employer to qualify.
- Students are permitted a limited period of unemployment during the initial period of post-completion OPT and the STEM OPT extension.
- All STEM OPT employers must participate in DHS’s E-Verify program.
Also on March 11, 2016, SEVP launched a STEM OPT Hub here. The Hub includes resources for students, designated school officials, and employers.
The final rule, which replaces the existing 2008 interim final rule and amends the current regulations at 8 CFR parts 214 and 274a, is here. A related ICE press release is here. Information on completing the Training Plan form is here. More information about SEVP is located here.