When Peter, a Muslim student from China, graduated from Texas A&M University in December 2020, he thought he would be working at a Texas consulting firm by early January.
Instead, the international STEM graduate is sitting in his apartment in Houston, waiting for the results of his Optional Practical Training (OPT) application. OPT is a temporary work visa that allows international students to extend their U.S. student visas by 12 to 36 months.
“Normally, it takes two to three weeks to get a receipt [notice] and then… it’s supposed to take about three months, to get an employment authorization document,” immigration Attorney Greg Siskind said in a video interview. “In this case, we were already hitting almost three months without even having a receipt, much less getting a decision on the document.”
Peter was eventually notified that his forms had been received by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): 116 days after mailing them to a U.S. secure federal facility in Dallas – called a lockbox – that receives forms and applications, and processes payments. Now, he waits up to eight more months for approval.
“I don’t have income while I’m still paying the lease. I don’t have health insurance since I’m technically unemployed. My apartment had a power outage and ran out of hot water because of the massive snowstorm last week,” he told VOA in an online interview. “The waiting period is unknown. And I think in the U.S., if you want the government to fix this problem in a quick manner, you have to sue them.”
On February 16, Peter and 17 other named plaintiffs from China filed a class-action lawsuit against USCIS in the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.
The suit demands the agency “open, process and adjudicate applications,” according to their OPTActionLogs website.
Robert Cohen, the case’s lead attorney, said there may be “several thousand” international students who are affected by the OPT delays. The students have been waiting for months, when it only should have taken weeks, he said.
“I’m one of the luckiest because my employer was really considerate and pushed my starting date,” Peter said. “But many people I know have lost their job offer due to the delays and even had to head home.”
USCIS released a formal statement January 8, acknowledging the delays, attributing them to “the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.” It was USCIS’ first public statement since the delays began in October.
On February 26, USCIS posted a second public statement responding to the long delays, giving affected applicants a 14-month OPT period of flexibility and a chance to refile certain rejected applications.
WeChat group fights delays
OPT's temporary employment program allows international students with F-1 visas to work in their major area of study for a total of 12 months before or after graduation. Students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are eligible for a 24-month OPT extension.
Applicants typically apply up to 90 days before completing their degree by mailing forms to one of USCIS’ lockbox locations: Texas or Arizona. The current delays have affected students applying for post-completion OPT extension; students in the pre-completion OPT program have not experienced delays.
Peter said he noticed in late November that the application receipt waiting period seemed to drag on longer than usual. Finding others in similar situations on 1Point3Acres, a Chinese community forum, he started a WeChat group chat to share their experiences with the ongoing delays. As of February 25, over 600 people had joined.
All student sources in this story have requested anonymity because they said they feared retaliation.
Zhang, a computer science graduate from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said she has had to ask her manager to push back her work start date twice: first to February 15 and now to March 29.
Li, a STEM OPT extension applicant, said he had lost his job because of the delays. Denied an extension and now jobless, he has since re-applied, hoping for an approval.
Other graduates, while waiting for their employment authorization documents (EAD), worry about their lack of health insurance. Unenrolled and unemployed, many graduates are left without it.
Frustrated at the lack of active solutions from USCIS, Long, a graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, explained that he has received the same automated responses when he emails USCIS about his delayed OPT status and delays.
USCIS initially announced a 45-day to four-month waiting time for OPTs. But Peter said he noticed the USCIS Processing Times website updated on February 22 that an extension to “3-8 months” processing time had been made.
“USCIS has been transparent about the delays in processing and scheduling caused by COVID-19 and other external factors,” the agency stated on February 26.
“The agency has taken numerous steps to help noncitizens address immigration-related challenges during the national [COVID-19 pandemic] emergency; and USCIS will continue to explore flexibility options and stakeholder recommendations to minimize those delays,” it wrote. “The agency recognizes the ongoing impact COVID-19 has had on nonimmigrant students and the noncitizen community as a whole, and USCIS appreciates the understanding it has received over the last year.
Diane Rish, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA in January that “applicants across a wide variety of visa categories are being impacted by these receipt notice delays.” She said the delays were caused by “an uptick in filings” in general because of an anticipated fee increase, an increase in green card filings, and a favorable processing date of October 13 that encouraged another surge.
“Maybe they really run out of people processing,” Long said. “But … we’re forcing them to change by filing the lawsuit because I believe, in America, this is the only way to try to force government agencies to do anything.”
“These [delays] affect our future confidence in studying in the U.S. We first saw that the U.S. was welcoming to all the international students or immigrants from all kinds of backgrounds,” Long said.
While waiting for their EAD cards and the lawsuit’s result, Zhang and Long have become friends and shared their cautious optimism during the uncertainty.
“At first, I was panicking and afraid of losing my job offer and legal status in the U.S. But then I realized that it’s a massive delay, not just me,” Zhang said as she emphasized the significance of representing the international student community rather than herself. “I just want justice for the students,” she said.
Although attorney Cohen is unsure when the case will be settled, he said he is “confident” that they will reach an agreement with the government.
“We’re hopeful that that will provide relief for all the students and put the students back in the position that they would have been in had they not delayed with the receipts like this,” Cohen said.