In order to improve and expand the training opportunities, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is all set to issue a new rule regarding the student visa regulations on optional practical training (OPT) for students who are earning degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) from the US universities. As per this new rule, international students who are pursuing 12 months of OPT in the United States can now enjoy an extension period of 24 months, i.e 36 months of OPT in the U.S. This 24 month extension effectively replaces the 17 month STEM OPT extension that was previously available for the STEM students. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

This rule will be effective from 10th May, 2016 and includes the “Cap Gap” relief that was first introduced in 2008 by DHS for any F1 student with an H-1B petition that was filed in a timely manner along with a request for change of status. However, this extension is only available for students with degrees from accredited schools, in a field recognized by DHS and for students employed by employers who participate in E- Verify. E-Verify is an Internet-based system, that compares information from an employee’s Form I-9 with the data stored with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration records to confirm employment eligibility. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

Employers will now have to organise formal training programs and will have increased responsibility when it comes to matters of salary for STEM OPT students and the other U.S. workers working in the company. They will have to protect U.S. workers and ensure that the salaries offered to the STEM OPT students and other American workers are appropriate and coextensive.

H-1B Visa lottery system

The H-1B visa is meant for non-immigrants who wish to work in the U.S as temporary workers. This visa can only be obtained when an employer offers a job and the person in question applies for the H-1B visa. Once the visa stamp is obtained, the non-immigrants are allowed to work in the U.S. for that employer. The H1B visa is issued for those occupations which require theoretical and practical application of specialized knowledge and also requires the visa holder to hold at least a Bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. Usually, a lottery system is followed to deal with the high number of applications. USCIS uses a computer-generated process, known as the lottery, to randomly select the petitions. Every year, 65,000 H-1B Visas are available in the bachelor’s degree quota and another 20,000 H-1B Visas are available in the U.S. Master’s degree quota. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

H-1B Cap-Gap relief

The corporate H-1B visas commences on 1st October and most students graduate in May or December. As a result, there is often a time gap between the OPT end date and the H-1B start date. Therefore, USCIS may provide a temporary extension of F-1 status and work authorization, while the H-1B petition is being processed. The extension is from the OPT EAD end date till 1st October. Students can request for an I-20 and a status verification letter that indicates this extension. However, they remain in F-1 status until the H-1B start date. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

Rules and regulations to be followed:

Various rules and regulations need to be followed to ensure educational benefit, integrity and security of the STEM OPT extension. The rules are as follows-

  • Formal training plan – As per this rule, employers are required to implement formal training programs so as to enhance and supplement the students’ academic learning through practical experience. As a result, students will be equipped with a more comprehensive understanding of their area of specialization. However, both, the student and the employer are obligated to report to the DSO (designated school officials) in case there are any deviations from the student’s formal training plan. STEM OPT Extension and its implications
  • DHS site visit- According to this rule, DHS officials are required to make site visits to the employer locations where STEM OPT students are employed. Generally, a notice will be issued prior to such site visits but sometimes DHS may also conduct an unannounced site visit to safeguard against noncompliance of regulations. The rule also aims to help DHS track STEM OPT students and further enhance the integrity of the STEM OPT extension. STEM OPT Extension and its implications
  • Annual self-evaluation- The student must submit their progress report to the DSO with respect to the practical training. Also, the student’s employer must sign the self-evaluation before submitting the same to the DSO. STEM OPT Extension and its implications
  • Reporting requirements- As per this rule, the student and employer is required to report any changes that take place in the employment status, including the student’s termination or departure. The STEM OPT students are also required to report any name or address changes, as well as any changes in their employers’ names or addresses to their DSOs. STEM OPT Extension and its implications
  • The employer must fulfil his obligations- The employer must be enrolled in and remain in good standing with E-Verify. They will also have to ensure that the students on STEM OPT extension do not replace a full time, part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker and that this opportunity helps the student attain his or her training objectives. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

Advantages of STEM OPT Extension

The STEM OPT extension is a boon for scores of international students all over the world. Due to this rule, a qualifying F-1 student with a STEM degree, who has been granted 12 months of practical training as per the general OPT program, can now enjoy an extension of 24-months of practical training. This time period of three years, for practical training is undoubtedly very beneficial for students as it will enable them to supplement their academic knowledge with valuable practical experience in their respective fields.

Prolonging the 17 month extension to 24 months will enable the students to better achieve the objectives of their courses. They will gain invaluable knowledge and skills through on-the-job training that may not be available in their home countries. The 24- period OPT STEM extension will also benefit the U.S. educational system, U.S. employers, and the U.S. economy. This rule is helpful for U.S. educational systems because the OPT extension rule is in favour of international students and this in turn will attract more international students to study in STEM fields and also lawfully remain in the United States. U.S. employers will benefit as they will be able to retain skilled, STEM OPT students who have studied in the U.S. The nation as a whole will also benefit from this rule because such well-educated students can actively contribute towards economic development by partaking in research and bring about innovation in the field of science and technology. Also, implementing this rule is advantageous for U.S. workers since employers will now have to follow strict rules for protecting and safeguarding the interest of the American employees. STEM OPT Extension and its implications

Controversy regarding the STEM OPT extension

Many people are in favour of this decision because this extension allows foreign students to develop their skills through practical application of their knowledge by working for U.S. companies for a longer period of time. People in support of this controversial program believe that this decision is worth applauding because it will prevent the country from experiencing an unnecessary “brain drain” as many foreign students who come to the U.S. for further education in the prestigious STEM fields will now remain in the country rather than leaving as soon as their program is finished due to visa restrictions. As a result, they will now contribute positively towards the country’s growth and economy.

However, many people are against this rule as well. Critics of this program believe that this rule is taking away jobs from U.S. citizens. They also feel that certain foreign students are currently abusing the Optional Practical Training program to gain unauthorized employment in the United States.

Conclusion STEM OPT Extension and its implications

Despite the controversy surrounding this new rule, many people are in favour of this extension, including the US President, Mr. Barack Obama. Implementing this new rule will be beneficial for U.S, as it encourages foreign students with degrees in distinguished fields to stay and create jobs, businesses and industries in America leading to retention of talented and skilled students. The international students are benefitted as they gain valuable practical STEM experience that supplements their knowledge, gained through their academic studies and at the same time, this rule will also prevent adverse effects on U.S. workers. The U.S. universities and college are also benefitted as these proposed changes will ensure that they maintain a globally competitive environment thereby attracting international STEM students to study and contribute towards the cultural diversity of the university. Indeed, this rule is a win-win situation for everyone. STEM OPT Extension and its implications