US: OPT monitoring casts DSO’s role in new light

Published 21/10/2019

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is ramping up efforts to ensure that international students are pursuing work opportunities directly connected to their field of study. The agency is actually passing the onus on to school officials who have to judge the relevance of the job to the student’s studies.

In September, ICE released new regulations requiring designated school officials (DSO) to review and maintain records of written statements from international students participating in Optional Practical Training and STEM OPT programs – demonstrating how students’ job responsibilities pertain to their area of study.

“It puts a huge burden on higher education institution staff to keep track of all this”

The regulation adds a new dimension to DSOs’ already complex scope of work, commented Tom Bogenschild, executive director of Global Education Oregon at the University of Oregon and head of AIEA’s public policy committee.

In addition to reviewing students’ descriptions of relevance, DSOs must also now follow up with students to request additional evidence if their initial explanation is found to be lacking.

“It puts a huge burden on higher education institution staff to keep track of all this,” Bogenschild said.

Under the new guidance, students may provide the written explanation to DSOs via the SEVP Student Portal or offline.

DSOs must then review and assess the explanation and follow up as needed. Schools must maintain a record of the explanation, either in SEVIS or in the student’s school records.

“Every change that makes the system more restrictive increases anxiety for international”

“The students and DSOs will make an approximation of how they view the job and how it relates to their field of study, but it may not coincide with the view of an ICE officer,” noted Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.

“There’s the issue of whether discrepancies will be viewed as understandable or whether they will be viewed in a more negative light,” he said.

Anderson added that the tightening regulatory environment just added pressure. “Every change that makes the system more restrictive, more complicated, increases anxiety for international students as to whether they’re obeying the rules and how this might affect their ability to stay in the US long-term,” he told The PIE News.

The latest regulation comes on the heels of an announcement that ICE would begin conducting visits to STEM OPT worksites.

OPT provides authorisation to international students to work in the US for up to 12 months during or after they complete their academic study, or up to 36 months for students who have earned a degree in STEM fields.

It is intended to be a work training extension of international students’ area of study, building on the skills they acquire at US colleges and universities.

Determining a connection between practical training and area of study has been a priority since the Obama administration, according to Neil Ruiz, associate director of global migration and demography at the Pew Research Center.

“When the last administration added the 36-month STEM extension, they also added new regulations to the program to ensure that the practical training had a connection to what students were studying,” he commented.

Ensuring that students are pursuing work that is relevant to their field of study may help prevent potential exploitation of the system, by both students and employers. Yet though the latest regulations may have been intended to do just that, Bogenschild said, the burden placed on DSOs and higher education institutions to monitor students may potentially “open up a can of worms”.

Meanwhile, as reported by The PIE in June, delays in processing OPT work permits led to international students missing out on work opportunities this summer.

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