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"We're not right here to steal jobs" – Immigration delays jeopardize the authorized standing of worldwide college students

Miami Herald | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Ji Hyun came to the USA from South Korea to realize her dream of becoming an intensive care nurse.

Now she is one of many international students whose career prospects and legal immigration status are threatened by months of delays in processing at US citizenship and immigration services.

Ji Hyun graduated from nursing school in December and secured a job offer to work in the intensive care unit of a Georgia hospital. On November 4, she submitted an application for the optional internship, a 12-month program that allows F-1 student visa holders to temporarily work in the U.S. in the field they studied.

By the time she received a receipt on February 10 stating that USCIS had received her application, it was too late. She lost her job offer. Your employer was required to have an approved work permit by February 8th.

"I followed all the rules. I had all the qualifications and was so ready to work," said Ji Hyun, who asked not to be fully identified to speak freely while her OPT application is still being processed by the agency.

It is not exactly clear how many students have been affected by the delays as USCIS has not released numbers. According to the agency, USCIS received 215,282 applications for approval of OPT work in fiscal year 2019.

Processing delays, such as Ji Hyun's, pose another challenge to the country's ability to attract and retain the highly skilled overseas students and workers that have historically fueled economic growth in the US.

The processing delays occur when the Biden government and Minister of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas attempt to reform the immigration system.

"We are still sending graduates who have been educated at our major universities back to their home countries instead of allowing them to innovate here in America," said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey Thursday when the Democrats unveiled a comprehensive immigration law which was endorsed by President Joe Biden.

CNBC interviewed half a dozen F-1 visa holders across the country Affected by delays in OPT processing including a cybersecurity engineer, a postdoctoral fellow studying Covid in an infectious disease laboratory, and a breast cancer researcher.

Everyone expressed concern and frustration with no income and health insurance while waiting for their job applications and legal status to be processed.

"I can't really sleep for a whole night. And I can't focus on reading or even watching a TV show," said Dan, 31, who recently received a PhD. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who wanted to be identified by her first name only.

"Every day I can check my email, call USCIS, call my department [International Student Services] and try to get updates or information about this delay."

Processing delays

Yohanes, a 25-year-old cybersecurity engineer from Ethiopia, earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in the U.S. before completing a year of OPT.

On November 6, Yohanes applied for the STEM OPT Extension, a 24-month add-on for students who have completed an OPT employment in science, technology, engineering, and math.

He didn't hear a response until three months later when he received a rejection notice from USCIS on February 2nd. His application was turned down not because of problems with his candidacy but rather because of questions about a credit card transaction, according to a copy of the notice from CNBC.

Now, Yohanes is not eligible to reapply for the STEM extension as its original OPT permit expired in January. When his 60-day grace period ends, he must leave the country.

"It's stressful and makes you hopeless. I've been here in the US for almost eight years," said Yohanes, who asked to be identified by only his first name in order to speak freely about the problem when he appealed against the rejection wanted to insert.

Delays in processing OPT applications affect not only the legal status and job openings of students, but also employers and the U.S. economy.

A 60% reduction in OPT stake would result in the loss of 443,000 jobs in a decade, including 255,000 jobs to be filled by native-born workers. This is the result of a study by the Business Roundtable from 2018, an association whose members are managing directors of large companies in the United States

"This finding confirms the results of countless previous studies that show that foreign-born workers are actually creating jobs for native-born workers rather than crowding them out," the study said.

According to a 2019 study by the non-partisan research and advocacy group New American Economy, nearly 45% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

Immigration attorney Greg Siskind said delays in processing could disrupt recruiting for high-skilled jobs and industries across the country.

"It can have an echo effect in the US for several years if the optional internship program for international students is significantly disrupted," said Siskind.

Delays began processing in mid-October, according to a class action lawsuit filed Tuesday in Ohio federal court. University administrators and associations said they heard of delays in OPT processing towards the end of 2020.

As a rule, students will receive a confirmation of receipt within two to four weeks of submitting their OPT application. Many who submitted applications to USCIS data processing centers in Arizona and Texas late last year are still awaiting acknowledgment of receipt.

In a Jan. 8 statement, USCIS acknowledged processing delays, citing Covid restrictions, an increase in filings, postal service volume and "other external factors".

"The agency is taking corrective action to minimize delays and we will provide additional updates as they become available," said USCIS spokesman Matthew Bourke.

According to a statement, USCIS employees "work extra hours and spread their workload" to reduce delays. USCIS also changed the OPT drop location to its Chicago Lockbox.

Without a confirmation of enrollment, students who need to renew a driver's license cannot do so. Especially in places without robust public transportation, an expired driver's license can make grocery or hospital access more inaccessible.

Delays in processing also endanger the legal status of students. If their applications are rejected due to technical errors such as payment issues, students may not have enough time to resubmit OPT before the application deadlines have expired. as in Yohane's experience.

Eventually, when work permits are issued, longer delays in turnaround times can shorten the student's time allotted for OPT.

Wei Chen, 29, graduated with a Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry from U.C. San Diego in December. Your OPT application arrived at the Texas Lockbox on Nov. 28, according to a USPS proof of delivery viewed by CNBC. She didn't get a receipt until Tuesday.

"My other colleagues are already doing research, experimenting and publishing their results. During that time, I can only wait," said Chen, who came to the US from Taiwan in 2015.

Impact on the US Economy

According to experts and studies, international students and the OPT program are fueling economic growth in the US and persistent delays could affect the future of international studying in the country.

The macroeconomic impact of international students in the US began to decline in the 2019 academic year due to a decline in international student enrollment. Economic contributions fell to $ 38.7 billion, or $ 1.8 billion less than in 2018, according to the latest analysis by NAFSA, a nonprofit international education association.

New York University, which houses the largest number of international students in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education in 2020, reported that nearly 100 students failed to receive a receipt two to three months after being submitted to the Texas Lockbox.

"Unfortunately, delays in OPT processing cause many talented international students to lose job opportunities and work experience. This affects not only student education, but also employers and ultimately affects long-term economic growth," said Steve Heuer, NYU Deputy Vice President for Government Affairs.

Rachel Banks, senior director of public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA, said the uncertainty surrounding the OPT program could lead some international students to cross the US for the benefit of places like Canada, Australia and countries in Europe.

"The optional internship is a huge benefit for international students. They really weigh heavily on where in the world they want to study," said Banks.

Shantanu, 33, received his Ph.D. in structural biology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in December. His OPT application arrived on November 17th and he didn't receive a confirmation of registration until February 11th. He is still awaiting work permits and cannot begin his postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

"We invest a lot of time in the US, work in the US and contribute to the US," said Shantanu, who only wanted to be identified by his first name. "And after a while, when we are treated like this, we wonder why we chose the US in the first place."

Last May, the Trump administration was considering suspending the program, NBC News reported. On January 13, a week before Biden's inauguration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced plans to set up a new unit to monitor OPT compliance. The announcement was canceled on January 26th.

The moves were among several under former President Donald Trump that aimed to curtail the U.S. immigration system.

"It was a huge challenge for international students with the [Trump] administration that had spread negative rhetoric about immigrants and international students, and we had already seen a decline in the number of new international students entering the US." said NAFSA banks.

The Biden Administration

During the campaign, Biden pledged to reverse Trump-era immigration policy and reform the legal immigration system in the United States.

The American Council on Education and other higher education associations, including NAFSA, wrote a letter to then-incumbent Secretary of State for Homeland Security, David Pekoske, on Jan. 26 urging USCIS to correct the delays in OPT processing.

The council wrote another letter to the newly confirmed Mayorkas on February 3, setting out recommendations regarding higher education and immigration, including measures to address the OPT delays.

No recommendations have yet been implemented by USCIS.

"We ask this government to send a very clear welcome message to our international students and say that the OPT program will stay here," said Sarah Spreitzer, the council's director of government relations.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced by Congress Democrats on Thursday does not specifically mention the OPT program, but does contain provisions aimed at increasing the number of job-related immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to CNBC's request for comment. A White House spokesman said the president's immigration measures were "just the beginning," and the government intended to take further steps in the coming months.

Ji Hyun, the nurse waiting for her work permit, hopes the administration will act sooner rather than later.

"We're not here to steal jobs. We're here to help the economy and find our dream. It's not about harming you or anything," she said. "We're just trying to be here and live with everyone and lead a normal life like everyone else."

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