As of May 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expanded the time period during which a foreign student with a degree from a U.S. university in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field may work as a trainee. American companies sometimes struggle to fill specialty jobs requiring STEM degrees, and foreign students with these qualifications are frequently among the pool of job applicants. Foreign students, however, often present employment authorization challenges for American companies. The new DHS regulation offers some relief.
Foreign students primarily come to the United States under the F-1 temporary immigration classification to study at American colleges and universities. Around the time of their graduation, F-1 students may apply to DHS for employment authorization to gain practical experience in their degree fields by working at an American company. This authorization is called optional practical training (OPT). The initial OPT is available for up to 12 months and covers all degree fields. Students who earn STEM degrees may become eligible for additional OPT if they are hired by employers enrolled in DHS’s E-Verify program. Under the new regulation, DHS has expanded the period for STEM OPT from 17 months to 24 months. Combining the 12 months of regular OPT with the STEM OPT provides the F-1 student with temporary employment authorization for up to three full years.
The expanded STEM OPT is accompanied by several new obligations for employers. Among others, an employer’s training program now must be in writing and explain how the practical training augments the student’s academic program in the STEM field. DHS also forbids an employer from hiring the F-1 student based upon STEM OPT if doing so will displace current full-time or part-time employees. DHS will enforce its new requirements through various mechanisms, including site visits by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.
To employ an F-1 student in STEM OPT, an employer must take several actions such as the following:
For a limited period, DHS will permit F-1 students who received only 17 months of STEM OPT to request the additional seven months that is now available under the new rule. Eligible students must have at least 150 days of STEM OPT remaining on the current authorization period. Further, the employer must comply with the new requirements, which includes preparation and implementation of a formal training program to cover the seven-month extension period. The extension request must be filed with DHS by August 8, 2016.