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Verifying work authorization under USCIS’ OPT cap-gap rule

There are special rules that act to automatically extend the US employment eligibility of qualified F-1 foreign student visa holders beyond the period initially authorized. The rule that relates to F-1 visa holders seeking to change to H-1B work visa status is referred to as “cap-gap” because it is intended to fill the gap between the date the OPT (optional practical training) period would otherwise expire and the date that the new H-1B employment authorization starts.

The H-1B allows employers to temporarily employ a foreign national in a specialty occupation. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants H-1B status. There is a limit, or “cap,” on the number of individuals who can receive H-1B status, and H-1B employment generally begins on October 1, the start of the federal government’s fiscal year. 

OPT is an employment authorization for F-1 international students who have completed their studies. Typically, the OPT is granted for 12 months. STEM majors working for eligible employers may qualify for extensions totaling an additional 24 months. At the completion of the study program or the end of OPT, F-1 students have a 60-day grace period to take the steps necessary to either maintain their legal status or depart the US. For the non-STEM majors, that means their OPT status expires well before the October 1 start date of H-1B, hence the “cap-gap.”

To deal with this situation, USCIS’ OPT cap-gap rule automatically extends an eligible F-1 student’s status to bridge the gap between the end of F-1 status and start of H-1B status, thereby allowing the student to remain in the US during the “gap.”

The cap-gap extension applies if all three of the following conditions are met:

  • An employer timely files a Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, with USCIS requesting a change of the student’s status to H-1B. Note: A petition requesting consular process does not qualify.
  • The H-1B petition asks for an October 1 start date.
  • The student’s status, including any applicable grace period, ends between April and September 30. 

How the OPT cap-gap protection is triggered by different events during the H-1B process

  • When an H-1B petition on behalf of the student has been filed with USCIS but not yet receipted, the student’s employment authorization automatically extends to June 1. While the extension is automatic, students can request from their school’s office of international students office an updated Form I-20 to serve as proof of legal status.
  • While the H-1B is pending with USCIS for processing, the student’s employment authorization automatically extends to September 30. Again, the student may, but is not required to, obtain an updated Form I-20 from the international students’ office. 

If USCIS denies the H-1B, or if the H-1B petition is returned as “not selected,” then there is no longer any cap-gap employment authorization. If the F-1 student’s OPT already expired, then the student has 60 days to depart the US or take other steps to maintain lawful status.

Employers are advised to request updated Form I-20s from their employees on OPT status as proof of valid work authorization, and to take note of the expiration dates.   

Note that if the student’s OPT expires before April 1 and the student is already in the 60-day grace period when the H-1B is filed, the cap-gap only extends the F-1 status, not OPT employment authorization. The student may remain in the US, but without OPT work authorization. 

Employers must verify the employment authorization for all employees in the US. Failure to do so may result in monetary penalties against the employer. Please contact Dentons for more information. 

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Verifying work authorization under USCIS’ OPT cap-gap rule

Stricter unlawful presence rules for foreign students and exchange visitors

Individuals in the United States on F, J and M visas (including F-2, J-2 and M-2 dependents) who fail to maintain their status will start accruing unlawful presence earlier, potentially spelling trouble for future immigration benefits, according to new US rules.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on Friday May 11, 2018, that the agency is changing the way it calculates the accrual of unlawful presence for nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors. The changes increase the likelihood that individuals in these two nonimmigrant visa categories will have problems on future immigration benefits.

Non-US citizens can be barred from obtaining visas, entering the US, and obtaining immigration benefits based on extended periods of unlawful presence in the US. If the individual accrues more than 180 days (but less than 1 year), he or she may be barred from re-entry for 3 years. Unlawful presence greater than 1 year can result in a 10-year bar.

The new policy, which becomes effective August 9, 2018, provides that nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors will start accruing unlawful presence either:

(1) the day after the visa holder no longer pursues the course of study or the authorized activity, or the day after they engage in an unauthorized activity; or

(2) the day after they complete the course of study or program, including any authorized practical training plus any authorized grace period.

In addition, visa holders start accruing unlawful presence on:

(3) the day after their I-94 expires; or

(4) the day after an immigration judge orders their deportation or removal of the individual.

Under the previous policy, an F, J or M visa holder would start accruing unlawful presence the day after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the visa holder that the individual violated his or her nonimmigrant status while adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit. Accruing unlawful presence under this criterion required notification by the USCIS to the visa holder of the violation.

This change is very important. There has always been a clear distinction between violating status and being unlawfully present, with only the latter situation having severe consequences for visa holders. A person could be in violation of status and not be unlawfully present. For instance, a foreign student on an F visa could drop out of school or perform unauthorized work and not accrue unlawful presence.

This situation is very specific to nonimmigrant students and exchange visitors because their Form I-94 and admission stamp usually list duration of status (or D/S) and not a specific date. Typically, F, J and M visa holders can maintain status as long as they remain enrolled or continue to participate in the activity for which they were admitted in the first place. The situation is different from other nonimmigrant visas, such as H-1B and L-1A visas, where unlawful presence generally starts accruing on the day after their visa stay permission on Form I-94 expires.

Under the new rule, even foreign students and exchange visitors who violate status unintentionally and without being aware of it, will start accruing unlawful presence—and may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they later apply for a new visa.

This announcement comes less than a month after USCIS updated its web page regarding the optional practical training (OPT) extension for international students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). USCIS now specifically provides that the training experience of STEM OPT workers may not be conducted at the place of business or worksite of the employer’s clients or customers. Combined with last week’s policy change, such an arrangement could cause the visa holder to accrue unlawful presence and later trigger a re-entry ban and visa denial.

We encourage employers who currently employ workers on F, J or M visas or who plan to do so, to carefully review the applicable rules, especially if you intend to subsequently apply for a new visa (e.g., H-1B, EB1, EB2) on their behalf.

For more information, please contact your Dentons lawyer and see the USCIS website for additional information.

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Stricter unlawful presence rules for foreign students and exchange visitors

US government immigration fee increase proposed

On May 4, 2016, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) published notice of a proposal to increase certain government filing fees and create a new fee. The average increase is 21 percent, but the highest increases are for the visas used by American businesses to bring skilled workers to the United States, immigrant investors creating jobs for Americans and immigrants acknowledged to have extraordinary ability.

A 42 percent increase is proposed for the Form I-129 used for the most common work visas, including H-1B professional, O-1 extraordinary ability, and L-1 intracompany transfer visas, as well as E-1 treaty trader, E-2 treaty investor and E-3/FTA H-1B1/TN treaty professional visas processed in the United States rather than at an American consular post or Preflight Inspection Unit abroad. A 42 percent increase is also proposed for the Form I-140 used for EB1, EB2 and EB3 employment-based immigrant visas.

If 42 percent seems outrageous, the increase proposed for the Form I-526 required for an EB5 immigrant investor creating at least 10 jobs for American workers is 145 percent.

Family-based immigration fares better, with only a 27 percent increase proposed for the Form I-130 used by United States citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain close relatives to immigrate. The Form I-485 required for immigrants who process through the USCIS instead of an American consular post abroad is proposed to increase only 16 percent.

The USCIS explains that the fee increases are required to recover costs for their services and to maintain adequate service. Current service is far from adequate. Although Congress mandated USCIS processing timelines in the American Competitiveness of the 21st Century Act of 2000 (AC21), almost 16 years later the agency continues to consistently fail to meet the standards set by law.

AC21 set 30-day processing times for most employer-sponsored nonimmigrant visas and 180-day processing times for most employer-sponsored immigration. Processing times tend to be at least twice as long or worse. Instead of 30 days, five months is the processing time currently reported for Form I-129 H-1B visa extensions, for example, and the USCIS California Service Center reported that as of February 29, 2016, the agency was currently processing Form I-485 immigrant applications received before May 17, 2014!

The agency has not increased fees in many years. Proposed fee increases usually become final fee increases without significant, if any, change—most likely later this summer.

There is a 60-day comment period. Guidance on how to submit comments is in the notice. The full text of the USCIS notice can be found online at the Federal Register.

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US government immigration fee increase proposed