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New OPT premium processing met with mixed reaction

US immigration plans to phase in premium processing for international students seeking OPT and STEM OPT extensions, two weeks after introducing new measures that allow F-1 visa applications to be lodged further in advance.

NAFSA’s deputy executive director of public policy Jill Allen Murray noted that it "appreciates USCIS’ attention to eliminating backlogs". Photo: Pexels

The ongoing expansion is a "priority for USCIS", the department's director Ur Jaddou said

Starting March 6, USCIS will support online form processing for certain F-1 students and accept I-907 Form (premium processing) requests from those who have pending I-765 Forms (which are used to apply for employment authorisation).

Premium processing for Form I-765 will allow those who pay extra to receive their employment authorisation decision in 30 days, or the $1,500 fee for the service will be refunded.

This will be valid for both pre and post-completion OPT, as well as STEM OPT recipients looking for a 24 month extension.

On April 3, USCIS will allow international students to apply for premium processing together with their employment authorisation applications.

However, it warned that those in the latter situation should not apply for premium processing before April 3, or else their applications will be rejected and they will need to reapply.

“The ongoing expansion of online filing is a priority for USCIS as we continue to create operational efficiencies and increase access to the immigration system for stakeholders, applicants, petitioners, requestors, and those we serve,” Ur Jaddou, USCIS director, said upon the announcement.

“The availability of premium processing for certain F-1 students, in addition to the ease of online filing, will streamline the immigration experience for a great many international students,” she added.

This expansion has been met with cautious optimism in the sector. NAFSA’s deputy executive director of public policy Jill Allen Murray said she “appreciates USCIS’ attention to eliminating backlogs” considering that the length of OPT is limited.

“Lengthy processing delays can unfairly diminish students’ OPT experience,” Murray told The PIE News. “The availability of premium processing as an option can help address timelines that are unique to F-1 students.”

However, Murray said that premium processing wasn’t the ultimate answer and that USCIS should “streamline and improve the efficiency of its systems to benefit all applicants” – not just those who are able to pay the premium processing fee.

Sherif Barsoum, associate VP for global services within the Steinhardt International Education Program at New York University, agreed that the expense could still be a barrier.

“Premium processing for OPT could be a great option for some students willing to pay the significant expense but at this point our biggest concern is seeing how this impacts regular processing of OPT,” he said to The PIE.

“As long as USCIS OPT processing time remains at the level it’s been over the last several months we welcome other options that could help students in a pinch.

“What we don’t want is for premium processing to become the norm or necessary for any student hoping to get their OPT application approved in time for when they want to start working,” he explained.

But immigration lawyer Ellen Freeman argued that premium processing can help the already difficult situation a lot of international students face and even assist with skills gaps for a time.

“We welcome other options that could help students in a pinch”

“I think even some employers will probably help them pay for this premium processing because American employers are so desperate to get workers. They would much rather spend $1500 dollars and have the employee available to them for training… and available for orientation, because before it was all staggered,” Freeman explained.

She described it as a “wonderful” progress.

The PIE spoke to a student from Nigeria who is currently trying to secure OPT for the first time and is also attempting to secure enough funds to be able to apply for his employment authorisation documents with premium processing.

“The premium processing will enable me to get the authorisation quickly to resume for a role, and still not worry about the OPT counting whether or not I have secured a role,” Emmanuel Alumona said.

“I chose to pursue the OPT to have more practical experiences and apply what I have learned in the classroom to real life situations. I studied special education and I like to think that joy and fulfilment comes from being able to support children in the classroom,” Alumona, who is about to graduate from Vanderbilt University, told The PIE.

The Presidents’ Alliance also called on USCIS to develop other ways of maximising efficiency for all OPT students.

“We’ve been really trying to get the policies to align with opportunities for students to gain valuable work experience after they get their education here and contribute those knowledge and skills back to the communities and economy here,” senior policy advisor Jill Welch said.

“I think there are many more [things] that need to be done. Yes, this can be a good step – what is important is that it be implemented with equity,” she stressed.

Alumona agreed that while USCIS’ approach is largely helpful, especially with the phasing in of the new processes, it still amounts to an expensive undertaking.

“I have been thinking about how to get the $1,500 to pay the processing fee. As an international student, that’s a huge amount of money for me,” he said.

“I chose to pursue the OPT to have more practical experiences and apply what I have learned”

“As we have recently noted… NAFSA recommends that USCIS seek alternative funding sources – namely federal appropriations – and implement efficiencies,” Murray added.

The Presidents’ Alliance also this week asked for the Biden Administration to implement a number of actions across the immigration spectrum to help streamline the process for applications, including recommending that OPT shouldn’t be the only post-graduation work option.

“One thing that we’re asking is that they should allow the use of curricular practical training, to gives international students valuable hands-on experience that’s essential to their career development – possibly outside their degree requirement,” Welch explained.

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