US Policy: STEM students under OPT extension cannot work at client sites

Published: 04/20/2018

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Several international STEM students hoping to work in the United States for a longer duration, post their studies, suddenly find their wings clipped owing to a change in interpretation of employer’s obligations by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), explained on its website.

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This development applies to the 24 month formal optional practical training (OPT) extension available to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degree holders. These students now cannot work at the employer’s client sites. In short it means tech companies or even business consultancies, may find it challenging to recruit such students.

Social media sites are suddenly abuzz with discussions by anxious students who have already obtained this extension and are working at client sites. There appears to be no 
clarity on whether the new interpretation would also apply to them.

The crux of the new interpretation appears to be that interns (students on OPT) are actually undergoing training and cannot work at client sites.

USCIS in its guidelines relating to ‘The employer’s training obligations’ states that – the training experience must take place onsite at the employer’s place of business or 
worksites to which US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has authority to conduct site visits to ensure the OPT requirements are being met. It adds that “The 
training experience may not take place at the place of business or worksite of the employer’s clients or customers because ICE would lack authority to visit such sites.” 

Online or distance learning arrangements are also now frowned upon – the employer may not fulfil its training obligation to provide a structured and guided work-based 
learning experience by having the student make periodic visits to the employer’s place of business to receive training, while the student is actually working at the place of 
business or worksite of a client or customer of the employer. Similarly, the employer may not fulfil its training obligation by having the student make periodic telephone calls 
or send periodic email messages to the employer to describe and discuss their experiences at the place of business or worksite of a client or customer of the employer.

The personnel who may provide and supervise the training experience may be either employees of the employer, or contractors who the employer has retained to provide 
services to the employer. They cannot be employees or contractors of the employer’s clients or customers. Again, the employer that signs the Form I-983 must be the same 
entity that provides the practical training experience to the student, utilizing its own personnel.

STEM OPT always required a formal training program which affirmed the employer’s commitments. Both the student and the employer were required to sign Form 1-982. 
However, until recently, the fact that the student cannot work at a client site was not clearly spelled out.

The United States is already seeing a drop in the number of international students. For instance, fewer students applied during the twelve month period ending September 30, 
2017. Only 47,302 student visas were issued during this period as compared to 65,257 visas in the earlier twelve month period, signifying a drop of 27%. If OPT opportunities 
decline, the incentive to study in the US may drop further.

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