On March 11, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a long-awaited rule regarding the new OPT STEM Extension program, which allows certain F-1 students to apply for a 24-month extension to their Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization, provided they earned a U.S. degree in a ‘STEM’ field (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The new STEM OPT program replaces the previous 17-month extension program and requires employers and students to undertake additional steps to comply with DHS’ new STEM OPT regulatory framework in exchange for longer periods of OPT.
DHS will begin processing applications for 24-month OPT STEM extensions starting May 10, 2016 – any STEM extension application being processed on or after that date will be subject to the rules and requirements of the new 24-month program. The final regulation puts into effect certain transition rules that will govern the OPT program on and after the May 10th start date. The particulars of these rules are broken down by the stage of OPT a student is in below.
As with any change in immigration law, the implementation can be complex and missteps in the process can result in significant consequences. To ensure your STEM extension application is timely and properly filed, we recommend consulting with an experienced immigration attorney.
You must have 150 days left on your current STEM OPT EAD at the time your application is received by USCIS; and
You must file your 7-month extension application between May 10, 2016 and August 8, 2016.
Note: If these two restrictions require you to file your 7-month extension application on or immediately after May 10, you may experience difficulty in getting a new I-20 issued by the DSO because the SEVIS system is not likely to be operational immediately on May 10. If you are unable to obtain a new I-20 from your DSO due to these SEVIS system limitations, you should file your 7-month extension on May 10, 2016 without your I-20—USCIS will receipt your application without the I-20, your OPT work authorization will be extended automatically by virtue of filing the extension and you will subsequently receive a Request for Evidence (‘RFE’) from USCIS for the I-20.
USCIS will consider your application under the new 24-month rules and regulations. Therefore, you will receive an RFE from USCIS requesting a training plan and newly issued I-20 as required by the new rules.
If your EAD will expire in April or May, we advise you to file a STEM extension application as soon as possible, pursuant to the legacy 17-month program, knowing that it will be pending after May 10—it is critical that you get your STEM extension application filed and receipted before the expiration of you current OPT in order to remain eligible for the STEM extension—your EAD will be automatically extended for a period of 180 days by virtue of the extension filing while your application is pending. You should then expect an RFE from USCIS and should work with your DSO to complete the proper paperwork for responding to the RFE to be eligible under the new program.
We advise you to work with your DSO to get the training plan approved and a new I-20 issued, so that you can file your application with all evidence required under the new 24-month program.
Note: In order to remain eligible for the STEM extension, your application must be received by USCIS before the expiration of your current EAD. Therefore, it is important to reach out to your DSO in advance and plan for some delay, as DSO offices all over the country will be inundated with these new applications and procedures.
For additional information, please visit the Department of Homeland Security STEM OPT website here.