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Infographic by GSP legislative action subcommittee
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MIT is home to a large number of international students on F-1 student visas. In the 2014-2015 academic year, 42 percent of the graduate student body was composed of international students. Most of these students apply for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program after graduation in order to work in the U.S. in their field of study. Every international student who completes a post-secondary degree in the U.S. on an F-1 visa is eligible for 12 months of OPT. Since 2008, those who complete a degree in a STEM field have also qualified for a one-time 17-month extension of OPT. This extension, however, was recently challenged in court by the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, and this August, the District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the STEM OPT Extension on the grounds of procedural deficiency. The court order is set to take effect in February 2016.

On Oct. 19, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a proposal for “Improving and Expanding Training Opportunities for F-1 Nonimmigrant Students With STEM Degrees and Cap-Gap Relief for All Eligible F-1 Students.” The proposed rule seeks to remedy the procedural deficiencies of the original STEM OPT Extension, ensure that the extensions can continue beyond February, and make several additional changes to the rules and procedures. We applaud some of its key features but are concerned by others, and we feel that the MIT community should be informed.

The proposed rule is significantly different from the previous STEM OPT extension rules. In order to help international students understand the important changes, the Legislative Action Subcommittee (LASC) of the MIT Graduate Student Council has analyzed and summarized the changes in an infographic accompanying this article. Most importantly, the new rule would lengthen the STEM OPT extension from 17 months to 24 months. We are excited to see this change, which brings the total duration of OPT for STEM majors to three years. This should be sufficient for F-1 students to secure a great deal of practical training and make meaningful contributions to U.S. research, technology development, and product development. 

The proposed rule also specifies that a STEM extension can now be based on a previous STEM degree from an accredited U.S. institution, and the number of allowed extensions is increased to two. This provision is extremely relevant for STEM students pursuing additional higher degrees such as an M.B.A, M.D., or J.D. This recognizes their added value to the U.S. economy, as they develop interdisciplinary skills, advanced technical training, and knowledge in broader topics such as business administration and public policy.

The proposed rule contains a new requirement that each student on OPT create an individual Mentoring and Training Plan (MTP), which must be approved by the employer and presented to the university’s international student office prior to the OPT extension. The MTP must elaborate on the learning opportunity, specific goals, relevance to the STEM field, compensation, and other details. Employers must attest in the MTP that they have sufficient resources to provide training, that compensation is commensurate with U.S. workers, and that no U.S. workers are displaced because of the OPT students. The extra administrative burdens placed on employers through MTP may potentially deter employment of F-1 STEM students, which is troubling. While a formal mentoring plan is welcome, the strict attestation requirement from employers may have a serious negative effect on STEM student employment, especially by small companies that lack legal and administrative resources.

LASC is also concerned that the ability of students to make use of the STEM OPT Extension might be disrupted by upcoming court actions and delays in this rulemaking process. We commend DHS for responding quickly to recent developments, and it is important for them to continue working quickly to ensure students on STEM OPT Extensions can keep working as we approach and pass the court’s February 2016 deadline.

Overall, LASC strongly supports the OPT program and the STEM OPT Extension. We also applaud the implementation of Cap-Gap Relief for smoothing the transition between F-1 and H-1B visa status. Individual international students can submit their own letters to DHS through the Federal Register, as it may be particularly valuable that DHS receive a large volume of personalized messages from many individuals that support this important program.

The authors of this column are members of the Legislative Action Subcommittee of the Graduate Student Council, which advocates on behalf of MIT’s graduate students in Washington D.C. on issues such as immigration reform.