FILE - In this July 16, 2019, file photo people walk past an entrance to Widener Library, behind, on the campus of Harvard…
FILE - People walk past an entrance to Widener Library on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., July 16, 2019.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has relieved a backlog in the Optional Practice Training (OPT) process that was preventing international students from extending their visas.

International students, or F-1 visa holders, can file online for OPT employment authorization using Form I-765 as of April 12. This option responds to a backlog of receipt notices in a lockbox system that processes OPT requests.

OPT is an extension of the F-1 student visa. OPT allows international students to work from 12 to 36 months before or after graduation.

Students, who were expecting a wait time of two to three weeks to be notified their applications had been received by the USCIS lockbox, have been experiencing wait times of three months since last year. They have been waiting even longer for confirmation and approval of their OPT applications.

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Meanwhile, students reported work opportunities evaporating as employers withdrew their offers.

"Why are #Indian students not applying to US #universities as before? … The hard & depressing #students life's," wrote Twitter user "the Frustrated Indian in the USA" on February 23.

"If US Immigration doesn't allow them, restricts them, harass them with all stupid policies, reject their requests, deny them H1b visas, etc. then why should an Indian student invest a huge amount of money in the US, why not move to a better, welcoming, open opportunity student environment like Canada, Australia, or the UK?" wrote Kabir Snooka in an online chat about the processing delays. 

International students have cited immigration hurdles and delays as a reason for not choosing to study in the U.S. The rate of international students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities had been on a steady incline since the 1960s. In the past few years, new enrollments stalled and then declined.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down campuses and kept many international students in their home countries, deferring admission or studying online, further reducing enrollments.

In November, NAFSA: Association of International Educators found that the 2019-20 international enrollment declines cost U.S. colleges and universities $1.8 billion, down from a $41 billion gain in revenues from the year before. Figures are not available for the 2020-2021 academic year yet, but additional losses are expected.

In February, NAFSA recommended that USCIS remedy the delays, as students were losing opportunities.

But since the online filing, applicants can check their cases' status and receive timely USCIS announcements.

"The I-765 online filing option allows eligible students to file forms online in a more user-friendly fashion and increases efficiencies for adjudicators," said a senior official performing the duties of USCIS Acting Director Tracy Renaud. The USCIS announcement also states that "the agency will work to expand online filing for Form I-765 to additional categories" other than OPT in the future.

USCIS made other changes to ease the backlogs in the application process in February. Applications received between October 1, 2020, and May 1, 2021, will be granted because of the delays.

The delays were because of "COVID-19 restrictions, a dramatic increase in filings of certain benefit requests, postal service volume and delays, and other external factors," USCIS announced.

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