On October 19, 2015 DHS published a proposed regulation that will significantly change the F-1 Optional Practice Training program if the rule becomes final. The proposed rule expands STEM OPT benefis, but also responds directly to an August 12, 2015 decision from the US District Court for the District of Columbia which vacated the 2008 STEM OPT regulations because of procedural deficiencies. The court gave the Department of Homeland Security only until February 12, 2016 to remedy the procedural deficiencies. The proposed regulation thus must become final before February 12, 2016. The public has 30 days from October 19, 2015 to comment on the proposed rule. After the comment period closes on November 18, 2015, DHS will review and respond to the comments, draft a final rule and send the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The final rule can then take effect 30 days after it is submitted to OMB. Thus, it is verly likely that the final rule will take effect before February 12, 2016 deadline. A few of the most significant changes included in the proposed regulation include:
- Lengthened STEP Extension Period: The proposed regulation would increase STEM OPT extensions to 24 months. Currently, STEP OPT extensions are granted for 17 months.
- STEM definition: The proposed regulation provides more clear definition to which fields of studies can be used for STEM extensions.
- Mentoring and Training Plan: The proposed regulation requires employers to create a formal mentoring and training program.
- Previously Obtained STEM degrees: The proposed regulation will allow F-1 students who are in post-completion OPT to use previously obtained STEM degrees to qualify for STEM OPT extensions. In order to qualify for this benefit, the employment opportunity must be directly related to the previously obtained STEM degree.
- School Accreditation and Employer Site Visits: The proposed rule will clarify DHS discretion to inspect work sites where F-1 STEM OPT workers are placed.
- Expansion of time allowed to be unemployed while in OPT status: Currently a F-1 student may remain unemployed for up to 90 days during the initial period of post-completion OPT and up to another 30 days (for an aggregate of 120 days) if the student recieves a 17-month STEM OPT extension. The proposed rule will keep the 90 day maximum for initial OPT, but will expand the STEM OPT allowance to 60 days (for an aggregate of 150 days) for students who obtain a 24-month STEM OPT extension.