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Extension of Post Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) for STEM Students and Cap-Gap Relief

There’s good news for foreign students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). On Friday, March 11, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a final rule allowing STEM students from U.S. institutions of higher education to extend their periods of optional practical training (OPT) by 2 years in addition to the one year of OPT already afforded to foreign students with degrees in any field. The original OPT extension period was limited to 17 months.

How will the OPT extension work?

The purpose of this STEM OPT extension is to allow students currently participating in the program the opportunity to gain additional practical STEM experience and bolster the knowledge gained through their academic study.

Why is the OPT extension important?

Acknowledging the valuable contributions that international students make to the U.S. economy through their payment of tuition and other study expenses, as well as their ability to enhance scientific and technological competitiveness, and academic discourse, the DHS has now made it possible to extend their periods of employment in fields directly related to their course of study.

The OPT is a form of temporary employment available to most F-1 students when the employment is directly related to the student’s major course of study in the U.S.

What do you need to know?

With the new rule comes increased oversight of the STEM OPT program through the implementation of integrity measures. Among others, these measures include: training plan requirements, student reporting requirements, attestations that the student will not replace any U.S. workers, and that the same hourly and compensatory terms are offered to both STEM OPT students and similarly situated U.S. workers.

These current changes do not affect the already instituted “Cap-Gap” extensions available to F-1 students who have timely filed H-1B Petitions. Many employers have utilized the H-1B program to employ students who are currently in F-1 status. Students newly accepted into the H-1B program have a start date of employment of October 1 of that program’s fiscal year. The period of time where a student’s F-1 student status and work authorization or OPT expire through the start date of the approved H-1B employment (October 1), is also known as the “Cap-Gap”. Currently, the “Cap-Gap” extension of OPT is automatic for an eligible F-1 student. The eligible student does not need to file an application for the extension or receive a new employment authorization document to benefit from the “Cap-Gap” regulations. However, the student must obtain an updated I-20 showing the OPT extension from their Designated School Official. These “Cap-Gap” rules remain in place even with DHS’ new rule giving added time of 2 years to STEM OPT students.

Want more information on the extension? Contact our Immigration Law Group.

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