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OPT flexibilities set out but “much more” needed to clear backlogs

OPTThe lockbox in Dallas was particularly singled out for having significant processing delays. Photo: Pixabay

223,500 people took part in OPT in 2019-20

International students reported delays in processing in late October at the lockbox in Dallas, leading to fears they would lose job offers and have to leave the US. Some applicants are still facing significant delays, and stakeholders have called for clarification how USCIS will “dig out of the backlogs”.

“These delays are a result of Covid-19 restrictions, a dramatic increase in filings of certain benefit requests, postal service volume and delays, and other external factors,” said USCIS in a statement.

“These delays are a result of Covid-19 restrictions, a dramatic increase in filings of certain benefit requests, postal service volume and delays, and other external factors”

“While we have made progress in addressing the problem, we are extending the following flexibilities to assist certain applicants for OPT impacted by the delays.”

Those who applied after October 1 2020 and up to May 1 2021 will be able to commence the OPT program from the date their application is approved rather than from the end of their course.

USCIS will also approve applications with “validity dates reflecting the same amount of time originally recommended by the designated school official from their school on the Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status”.

Students who receive an approval for less than the full amount of OPT time requested due to the 14-month time limit will be able to request a correction, while those whose applications were submitted on time but rejected, and who were then left unable to reapply because of processing delays, will also be able to file again.

“We are very gratified and relieved that USCIS has taken action to provide much needed flexibility and protection for the international students applying for OPT who were put in precarious situations that threatened their futures in the US for no fault of their own,” said Miriam Feldblum, executive director at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

“The administration is listening and is trying to undo damage, and make positive changes,” she continued.

“The administration is listening and is trying to undo damage”

“Of course, there is so much more to do to relieve backlogs, lift travel restrictions, open up appointments, provide greater flexibility in visa processes, and so on to truly enable international student admissions to ramp back up, and support international students who are seeking to come study in the US as well as those who are seeking to stay and participate in OPT and STEM OPT and contribute to our communities and economy.”

The news was also welcomed by NAFSA, whose counsel and director of immigration policy Heather Stewart said that what they need to see next is “the agency’s plan to dig out of the backlogs created by the prior administration”.

“We understand there were limitations due to the need to protect workers from Covid,” she said.

“DHS must support the allocation of resources that are necessary to speed up processing and hire more people, if necessary, while rebuilding the service orientation of USCIS.”

For some students the current waiting time for a receipt has already passed the filing deadline, and many have signed petitions asking for the applications sent to Dallas to be processed. Their letter described the experience of waiting as “extremely distressing”.

Another group of students in Ohio have also initiated legal proceedings against USCIS. Their lawyer accused USCIS of “unlawfully delay[ing] opening, processing, and adjudicating applications submitted to its lockboxes in Arizona and Texas”.

“A significant number of students who experienced delays will be covered, however, we are not able to quantify the number of international students who gave up on their long-planned for experiential learning because of the delays,” added Stewart.

“We do not know how many international students lost opportunities because of the uncertainty.”

“We do not know how many international students lost opportunities because of the uncertainty”

According to a Migration Policy report, the number of students taking part in OPT more than doubled between the academic years 2009-10 and 2019-20 from 10% to 21%, although they said “growth has slowed in recent years”.

“In SY 2019-20, there were slightly more than 223,500 people in the OPT program, an increase of fewer than 500 from the previous year,” they noted.

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