On May 11, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it had expanded and revised the Designated Degree Program List of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs that qualify eligible graduates on student visas for an optional practical training (OPT) extension.
DHS initially published the regulation on April 8, 2008, allowing an extension of OPT from 12 months to 29 months for the estimated pool of nearly 150,000 F-1 students who completed a STEM degree. The link between STEM OPT employment authorization and permanent resident status cannot be overstated. Congressional Research Service statistics show that foreign nationals reporting STEM occupations made up 44% of all of the 676,642 employment-based principal immigrants during the last decade.
In order to obtain an STEM OPT extension for more than a 12 month period, the following criteria must be met:
- The student must currently be participating in a 12 month period of approved OPT;
- the student must have been enrolled on a full-time basis for at least one full academic year in a college, university, conservatory or seminary in an ICE certified program;
- the student must have obtained a degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) area of study as listed on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) STEM designated Degree Program List;
- the student must be working for an employer in a job directly related to the student’s major area of study;
- the student must be working for, or be intending to work, for an employer enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify program, and
- the student must properly maintain F- 1 status.
The Designated School Official (DSO) at the college or university must recommend the 17-month OPT extension in SEVIS, after verifying a student’s eligibility, certifying that the student’s degree is on the STEM Designated Degree Program List, endorsing the recommendation on Form I-20. The student must then apply for the 17-month extension on Form I-765, together with the timely (within 30 days) endorsed I-20, a copy of their degree with the valid E-Verify Client Company Identification Number for the employer with whom they are seeking the 17-month OPT STEM extension.
The CIS has indicated that that an expired EAD (Form I-766) issued for post-completion OPT, combined with a Form I-20 endorsed by the F-1 student’s DSO recommending the STEM extension and the CIS receipt notice (Form 1-797) showing timely filing of the STEM extension application will serve as a temporary List A employment authorization and identity document.
Students who timely file an application for the 17-month OPT extension will be able to continue employment white the extension application is pending until a final decision is made on the Form I-765 extension or for 180 days, measured from the EAD expiration date, whichever comes first.
The expanded STEM list is an indicator that there is broad bipartisan support for easing the path to H-1B and ultimately to permanent resident (green card) status for foreigners who study science, technology engineering or math in the U.S. The introduction of a variety of bills in Congress in 2012 dealing with easing the immigration requirements for STEM graduates is another indicia of popular support to encourage these highly educated individuals to remain in the U.S. permanently.