When Ella Yuan moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue her master’s degree in enterprise risk management, she was hopeful that being in the financial center of the world would help her launch her career and gain valuable work experience.
A year and a half later, with her hard-earned degree from Columbia University, Yuan, 23, who moved to the United States as an international student from China, found herself struggling to secure employment after graduation. Because of the pandemic, there is a delay in processing temporary work permits, namely the Optional Practical Training, a work permit directly related to a student’s field of study.
Under federal regulations, students on OPT can remain unemployed for a maximum of 90 days before losing their immigration status and facing possible deportation. The unemployment deadline for students who major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics is 150 days.
Yuan submitted her OPT application documents back in March, in anticipation of getting a job upon graduation. But after reviewing her paperwork, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified Yuan of a missing document in late April.
“They mailed my package back,” said Yuan. “The process was really, really long and probably took me 20 days to re-file.”
The USCIS confirmed receipt of her new application package on May 21 through email, yet more than four months later, Yuan is still waiting for her OPT to get approved.
Without it, companies cannot hire or pay her due to her foreign status.
Thomas Sirinides, director of international student services at New York University, said delays in processing OPT do not count towards days of unemployment, but USCIS also does not extend the end date of the OPT program.
According to Sirinides, when students apply for OPT a few months before their scheduled graduation, they are asked to select the OPT start date in the application. After it gets approved, the end date of the program will be 12 months after the indicated start date.
“Let’s say you [plan to] start on July 19,” said Sirinides. “That means your end date would be one year later, July 18, 2021.” But if there are delays in processing OPT and an applicant doesn’t get approved until September or October, “they don’t extend the end. They just chop it off,” he said.
Michael Wildes, managing partner of the immigration law firm of Wildes & Weinberg, P.C., said students should understand that the current administration is very aggressive against immigration and need to prepare themselves for delays or even last-minute changes.
“We are always looking to see whether or not a student can go to higher ground, if they have the ability to pivot to an investor’s visa, a talent’s visa,” said Wildes. “Even going back to school rather than working may be safer ground.”
According to current immigration laws, an F-1 visa allows international students to attend an accredited U.S. academic institution, then legally work in the country on OPT for up to 12 months, before securing an H-1B work visa. STEM majors can also apply for a 24-month extension and work on OPT for up to 36 months.
Even for students who received their OPT on time, finding employment during the pandemic has been a challenge.
Tommy Wong, a recent New York University graduate, is an international student from Malaysia. Wong managed to secure a job offer in late August before his unemployment limit was up, but the process of job hunting as a foreign national was not without difficulties.
“I definitely came across a lot of postings that specifically mention that internationals, or people who require huge sponsorship at some point in the future, people who are on OPT or CPT are currently not welcome to apply,” said Wong. “I want to say it’s discriminatory.”
Wong said he had to be strategic about bringing up his foreign status during interviews. For some employers, it can be a deal breaker if they are unwilling or financially incapable of sponsoring an international employee for their future H-1B work visa.
Eventually, Wong was able to secure a job as a research associate.
“Three months of unemployment, let me tell you, is not fun. It’s a lot of questioning your life,” he said. “I’m very grateful for everyone that I networked or just briefly spoke to. People who helped me directly or indirectly with eventually landing this job.”
For many international students on OPT who are still searching for employment, Sirinides said there are still options to remain in the U.S. before the 90-day unemployment limit puts their immigration status in jeopardy. Volunteering for community service positions related to the student’s field of study is one such option, he said.
“You are not getting paid. I call it OPT activity,” said Sirinides, explaining that the work would count as employment, “because you are still using your skills.”
Other options include changing students’ status to tourists or starting a new academic program at an institution.
Even with paperwork delays caused by the pandemic, Sirinides said that international students shouldn’t expect any extensions beyond the 90-day unemployment limit. “I would say students should be planning as if there is no special option,” he said. “As if there might be a resurge of COVID-19, so that you are ready for the worst situation.”
Yuan is trying to avoid that scenario. “For now, all I can think about is to solve the OPT issue, if it’s solvable,” she said. “If it’s not, then probably I have to do something else or simply go back to China.”