International students’ summer work authorizations are facing significant delays at USCIS.

gray concrete dome building at daytimeMost students are well-acquainted with the feeling of stress that often comes with the task of finding an internship for the summer. For international students, though, the difficulties are just beginning once they receive a summer job offer.

The work authorization process has been particularly burdensome this year, and with July just around the corner, international students across the nation are still waiting on their visas for summer jobs. Some students who received their authorization late have been able to keep their positions and push back their start dates. Others have not been so lucky—many students have lost their summer internships, found themselves in financially turbulent situations, or had to return home for the summer.

While many international students are able to rely on their parents to borrow money, others have the burden of partially or fully supporting their families. Not only did many lose their expected income over the summer, but some now have nowhere to live, lost their housing deposits, or lost money on flights to other states. At Princeton, only 10 out of 90 applicants have received their summer work authorization, and many of those 10 students still missed the start dates for their positions.

So what’s the hold-up on all these applications? Everyone familiar with the immigration system knows that delays are inevitable, but it turns out that the process hasn’t always been this slow. According to a report released this year from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the processing time for immigration-related applications and petitions has actually increased by almost 50% in just two years, and those processing times kept increasing in 2018, even when the case volume was diminishing. The estimated backlog in 2017 was over 2.3 million cases, more than double the amount from the previous year.

For international students seeking summer work, the delay is mostly affecting applicants for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows F-1 students to work at a job in their major area of study for up to a year. The process involves requesting that a school official recommend the OPT be granted, after which the student must file an I-765 Application for Employment Authorization form along with supporting documentation and a non-refundable fee of $495.

Students are also restricted from applying until at least 90 days before the end of the school year. In past years, the 90-day restriction wasn’t a problem, as it matched up with the maximum wait time, and was usually taken care of within 60 days. This year, USCIS predicts the backlog could be up to five months, meaning that students who applied as early as possible back in February might not get authorized to work at their summer jobs until mid-July.

Schools are jumping into action to try to address this problem. At Yale, administrators have come up with a short-term solution by offering a course that would allow the university to authorize summer work instead of the federal government. In a letter to the New Jersey Congressional Delegation Regarding Immigration, presidents from colleges and universities across New Jersey expressed concern about the increased barriers for international students, faculty, and staff. The schools have been seeing decreases in foreign student enrollment, and graduate students and faculty have missed or deferred for an entire semester because of delays at the State Department. The universities attribute this delay, at least in part, to additional background checks and the increasing number of requests for evidence (RFEs), which more than doubled in 2017.

The letter says that “Visa applicants are generally not provided with any explanations, nor are they told how long the additional processing may last…. This harms not only the students, but also the employers seeking to hire qualified, U.S.-trained workers for a practical training opportunity.” It continues, noting that these situations “create a frustrating and sometimes hostile environment for those wishing to live in and contribute to our communities.”

While schools are doing what they can to plan for future problems, there’s only so much they can do for applicants this year. In the meantime, the summer months are almost halfway gone, and some students may still be waiting on their application results when they return to school in August.


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