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3Q: Supporting MIT international students experiencing processing delays this summer

An uptick in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing delays for international students seeking to pursue internships in the U.S. this summer has affected some MIT students.

The International Students Office (ISO) and MIT’s Washington Office have been actively engaged in addressing these delays and are working to find ways to support students who have been negatively impacted, both academically and financially.

Below, David C. Elwell, Associate Dean and Director of the ISO, talks about what’s happening.

How have these processing delays affected MIT international students who wish to work in the U.S. this summer? Why is this important?

The ability for our international students to pursue internships in the summer, or throughout the year, is crucial for their academic and professional success. It’s also worth noting that practical and experiential learning is a hallmark of an MIT education.

The delays have specifically impacted what’s called Optional Practical Training (OPT). This is a benefit authorized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that enables F-1 student visa holders to  pursue internships/experiential learning opportunities in the U.S. in order to gain practical training in their major field of study. Students who have been in lawful, full-time student status for at least one full academic year are eligible for a total of 12 months of OPT to use during or after completion of their degree program. Students in STEM fields are eligible for up to 3 years of additional OPT (STEM OPT Extension) after completion of their degree program.

The USCIS has recently projected an increased waiting time of up to five months for students to receive approval. Agency officials have said that they have experienced an uptick in requests and that has resulted in a backlog.

While average processing times had been approximately 90-100 days, under regulation students could not apply for approval any earlier than 90 days prior to their employment start date (during their academic program) or degree completion date (for post-completion OPT). All applications undergo required security review procedures.

Students and employers are therefore planning, if necessary, for delayed start dates while they await their OPT approval beyond average processing times. It is worth noting that each case is unique, but all of these students awaiting OPT permission have already been vetted at least once by the government through their approved visa application to study in the U.S.

How is your office helping?

The ISO is working closely with all of our students who have applied for OPT authorization for summer employment and are still waiting for approval.

As of June 16, 2019, 45 students filed OPT applications (43 graduate students and 2 undergraduate students). Fifteen have been approved and seven were eligible to instead enroll in Curricular Practical Training (CPT)-eligible internship/experiential learning subjects in their curriculum through their respective departments. A total of 23 applications are pending; they are all associated with graduate students. Nineteen of those applications have extended beyond the internship start date while four are still within the timeframe of the requested start date. Currently, 415 MIT graduate and undergraduate students are authorized for CPT programs this summer.

We have already reached out to the 23 students whose applications are pending to see if they need any financial help given the delay in the start of their internships.  So far the Office of the Vice Chancellor has offered financial support to 10 students who have financial concerns associated with these OPT processing delays. For eligible cases, we assist students eligible for expedited review to make that request to USCIS, speak with employers who need further understanding of OPT procedures,  and we can reach out to federal immigration offices to resolve any errors or lost employment authorization cards.

In addition to managing individual cases, we also try to help students through education and advocacy. On the education front, we require all students applying for CPT or OPT to attend a mandatory ISO F-1 (CPT-OPT) Employment Information Session. This helps students understand what the employment authorization application process will entail and how long it is likely to take.

As for advocacy, we track the trends we’re seeing in processing delays so we can partner with international education professional associations and Congressional offices to advocate the USCIS and U.S. Department of Homeland Security on behalf of international students.

Is MIT exploring alternative options to help students who are experiencing delays?

We continue to work with MIT students and academic departments interested in creating CPT-eligible internship/experiential learning subjects in their curriculum through their respective departments. Since 2015, at least 12 academic programs at MIT have added CPT-eligible opportunities.

For students with OPT applications that have extended beyond their requested internship start date, ISO Advisors will check with the students’ academic departments to explore whether CPT would be an option for the student. We’re also available to speak with a student’s employer if the employer has questions about OPT and processing timelines. In our experience, most employers are understanding about the delays being beyond a student’s control and will adjust or defer starting dates until OPT is secured.

In some cases, employers have arranged for their overseas subsidiaries to hire the student abroad until the OPT authorization comes through for the U.S. job.

We are also exploring broader long-term solutions that are related to curricular requirements for experiential learning. These will need to be considered through the faculty governance process.