On March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published its new rule on STEM Optional Practical Training (STEM OPT). The STEM OPT program allows eligible recent graduates of U.S. educational institutions to obtain practical training in certain science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields of study. The new rule will take effect on May 10, 2016. This long-awaited rule makes sweeping changes to the current STEM OPT process.
Some of the highlighted changes include:
- Extension of the STEM OPT period to 24 months (previously 17 months)
- Creation of a concrete definition of what constitutes an eligible STEM program and an ongoing source for updates on eligible fields
- Establishment of a required training plan (Form I-983: Training Plan for STEM OPT Students):
- To be signed by student and an appropriate individual in the employer’s organization
- Must be completed once every 12 months
- Must be provided to the Designated School Official (DSO)
- A provision allowing F-1 students that have previously received STEM degrees to apply for a STEM OPT extension, if:
- The degree was received from an accredited institution at the time of application for the STEM OPT
- The accredited institution is SEVP-approved
- The position directly relates to the STEM degree program
- A provision requiring a STEM OPT employer to attest the student will not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent U.S. worker
- The inclusion of a provision allowing for employer site visits:
- Employers will be notified 48 hours in advance of a visit, unless the site visit is to address complaint or evidence of noncompliance, in which case no notice will be provided.
- A provision which maintains the 90-day limit on unemployment during initial post-completion OPT, but extends the STEM OPT limit to 150 days of unemployment
What stays the same?
This new STEM OPT rule also maintains many of the 2008 Rule on STEM OPT provisions. The new rule still:
- Requires all employers of STEM OPT individuals to be enrolled in E-Verify and in good standing
- Requires employers to report changes in a STEM OPT individual’s employment within 5 business days
- Requires STEM OPT individuals to report name/address changes or changes in employment to their Designated School Official (DSO)
- Allows for a cap-gap extension of a student’s F-1 and OPT for timely filed H-1B petitions
What do the changes mean for Washington STEM students?
It is important that U.S. universities and employers make note of these changes, given that 44 percent of international students in the United States are studying for STEM degrees. Washington attracted 27,051 international students last year alone, ranking as the eleventh most popular state for study in the United States. This translates to an economic spend of almost $790 million. In order for Washington colleges and universities to retain their international students and continue to attract others to the state, Washington universities will need to emphasize these changes to potential international students. Adapting to these changes will also allow Washington employers in the STEM sector to continue to recruit top talent — and avoid losing these individuals to other states or countries.
Employers or STEM-eligible applicants with questions or concerns regarding this new rule and its implementation should contact immigration counsel for further information.