International students who have graduated from a qualifying U.S. college with an Associates, Bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD degree receive a work permit under a program called “Optional Practical Training” or OPT, which allows them to work in their field of study for a period of time. Most students receive 12 months, but those who graduate from STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) receive an additional 24 months.
Students who obtain OPT work permits are only permitted to work in their field of endeavor related to their degrees and cannot be unemployed for more than 90 days and those on stem for an additional 60 days. Students who remain unemployed past the limit are no longer considered to be maintaining legal immigration status and would be expected to either re-enroll in a new academic program or leave the U.S. after a grace period.
Now that COVID-19 is upon us and many U.S. businesses have either closed or had layoffs, large numbers of students on OPT have found themselves out of a job and unable to find work in their field. For instance, an accounting degree graduate would be expected to work in the field of accounting or finance, but not as a waiter or Uber driver. In the past, unless a student on OPT was returning to the U.S. from travel abroad, U.S. officials did not check on each student’s employment status to confirm employment in their field of study.
However recently, the Customs and Border Enforcement (ICE) agency which oversees international students issued an advisory to students that they are required to update their current OPT employment information in the college Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Those who have no employment information will be deemed to be unemployed and could have their student visa status “terminated”.
The ICE notice, entitled, “Failure to Report Employment While on Optional Practical Training,” advises students to immediately update employment status or risk losing OPT program status.
Students on OPT who have exceeded unemployment limits or who are working in jobs which are not authorized under the OPT program should strongly consider obtaining a new I-20 for a new academic program in order to continue to maintain legal status. You can see read the ICE advisory by visiting our website at www.Immigratetoday.com and clicking on the Immigration Newsletter link in the upper left hand corner or by visiting our enewsletter site at: www.americanimmigrationcentral.com
** Contributions to this Column are made by Attorney Caroly Pedersen, Esq. of the American Immigration Law Center