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Student Update: STEM Degree Holders

On April 4, 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released an interim final rule, extending the period of Optional Practical Training (OPT) from 12 to 29 months for qualified F-1 non-immigrant students. The extension is available to F-1 students with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) who are employed by businesses enrolled in the E-Verify program. This update explains benefits this interim final rule provides to qualified foreign students as well as restrictions it imposes on such as type of employment, period of unemployment, and field of employment. This update will also explain reporting rules for students and employers in cases of changes in jobs or student's situation.


Probably the biggest benefit the new interim rule provides to qualified foreign students is that it will allow students to continue U.S. employment up to 29 months without any break. It means that students have two years to apply for H-1B visa in case that students' H-1B visa petition are not approved in the first year. Another big benefit the rule provides is that some qualified students may directly apply for the second preference employment-based permanent residency without first applying for H-1B status. If a student has at least a master's degree and is employed in a position requiring a master's degree (assuming his employer is willing to sponsor his immigration visa and other conditions are met), he may apply for permanent residency during his post-completion OPT and STEM extension period.


Post-completion OPT must be based on a STEM degree.
To be eligible for the 17-month OPT extension, a student must have received a degree included in the STEM Designated Degree Program List, and the student must currently be in an approved post-completion OPT period based on a STEM degree. Thus, a student, who received an undergraduate STEM degree but his graduate degree is in a non-STEM field, would not be eligible for the 17-month STEM extension if his current post-completion OPT is based on that non-STEM graduate degree. Furthermore, if a student has a dual major, and one of the degrees is a STEM degree while the other is not, the student would be eligible to apply for the STEM OPT extension only if the job is related to the student's STEM degree.

Employer must be enrolled in the E-verify program.
In order to apply for the STEM OPT extension, the student must provide his or her employer's name and its E-Verify company ID that means that the employer must be enrolled in the E-verify program. The E-verify program is an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Once an employer has enrolled in E-Verify, the employer is responsible for verifying employment eligibility for all new hires, including newly hired F-1 OPT STEM students with 17-month extensions.

Limits on Periods of Unemployment: 120 days.
Students on post-completion OPT may have up to 90 days of unemployment. Students who receive a 17-month STEM OPT extension are given an additional 30 days of unemployment. Thus, they are given a total of 120 days of unemployment over their entire post-completion OPT period.

Limits on Types of Qualifying Employment
The regular post-completion OPT allows even unpaid interns or volunteer work as long as the job is related to the student's degree and it is at least 20 hours per week. However, students on an OPT STEM extension must work at least 20 hours per week in a paid position directly related to the student's STEM degree. This means that STEM students are allowed to volunteer, but volunteer work does not count as employment for the purpose of maintaining F-1 status. In addition, STEM students may work multiple jobs related to their STEM degree, but all the employers must be enrolled in the E-verify program.

Other Important Points to Remember
Students on STEM OPT must report loss of employment within 10 days to DSO. In addition, students must report to DSO within 10 days of changes to legal name, address, email address, employer name and address. Employers must report to DSO within 48 hours if student's employment is terminated. STEM students can be employed up to 180 days while his EAD application is pending with USCIS. For I-9 compliance purpose during that period, the student must be able to provide his employer an expired EAD, I-765 receipt, and annotated I-20 showing DSO's recommendation for STEM extension in lieu of a valid EAD. However, a valid EAD is required after 180 days.

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