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International students in Minnesota face uncertainty amid work authorization slowdown

Graduating seniors can apply for work authorization no earlier than 90 days before they obtain their degree. But with wait times of up to five months, some have had to decline jobs they’d hoped to start this summer.

A screenshot of what Vergianti Agustini, a recent economics and geography graduate of Macalester College, sees each time she checks on her case status. The receipt number has been blurred for privacy reasons. Agustini said she'll periodically refresh the page for updates throughout the day.
Courtesy of Vergianti Agustini

Vergianti Agustini, freshly graduated from Macalester College, was looking forward to starting a job with the Brookings Institution come summer.

She thought she was in the clear, having submitted paperwork for the federal Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that would allow her to work in the STEM field for three years after graduation. But the months piled on as she waited for United States Citizenship and Immigration to greenlight her application. Unsure when she’d be able to legally work in the U.S., Agustini turned down the job offer.

Students like Agustini from across the country have reported delays in receiving work authorization. Dartmouth College students even petitioned school administration for support.

In a statement to MinnPost, a USCIS spokeswoman attributed the slowdowns to a “surge” in applications, resulting in a “small backlog of cases that are pending beyond the standard 90-day processing time.”

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Some universities in Minnesota have told MinnPost that they have seen processing times stretch longer than they’ve experienced before. Minnesota State University, Mankato saw delays “well over” 110 days. Minnesota State University Moorhead heard from about five students about processing exceeding 100 days. Southwest Minnesota State University saw about 45 students reporting delays of 70 days, when in the past approval would come about a month earlier. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities did not provide details but said students have experienced “significant delays.” 

School officials echo similar stories: They’re fielding panicked inquiries from students; some of them have even lost job offers, unable to definitively tell employers their start date.

“We’ve had students have job offers rescinded once the employer has waited as long as they could. It’s devastating to the student,” said Jacy Fry, director of the Kearney Center for International Student Services at Mankato State.

The USCIS website says to expect wait times ranging from 4 weeks to 5 months from the Virginia-based Potomac Service Center, which handles all OPT applications. 

With her job authorization in limbo, Agustini’s life has been thrown into uncertainty. Even returning home to her village in Bali, Indonesia, would be a gamble, because she fears she wouldn’t be able to get back into the U.S.

“If students are feeling helpless, it’s because there aren’t a lot of avenues open to them to try to move things along,” said Marissa Hill-Dongre, assistant director of the University of Minnesota’s International Student and Scholar Services.

90 days no more

University staff say they help students through the work authorization paperwork, but they can’t do much once it’s in federal hands.

“It’s been frustrating that these young men and women are doing things by the book and the government is failing them,” said Juan Tavares, who at the time of interview was the director of International Student Services at Southwest State.

In order to apply for OPT, international students must also file an I-765, a separate work authorization application that is required for all immigrants seeking employment in the U.S. In addition, graduating seniors can apply no earlier than 90 days before they obtain their degree. 

In the past, school officials say that’s how long it’s typically taken for USCIS to get back to the student, sometimes even faster. But that standard appears to have dissolved, both in practice and as an agency goal. In 2017, USCIS dropped its 90-day processing timeline for all employment authorization documents. 

The effect is that graduating students who applied on time in February or March, expecting to gain work authorization by June, were forced to pass on summer employment opportunities. 

“My argument there is if it’s taking longer than the 90 days then why are we penalizing the students and not allowing (students) to apply sooner?” said Janet Hohenstein, director of International Student affairs at Minnesota State University Moorhead.  “That being said, students are going to apply for it when they want to apply for it.”

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The OPT program has been a flashpoint in the immigration debate, viewed as a gateway to the H-1B visa for highly skilled foreign workers. Approved OPT applications have ballooned 400 percent since 2008, outstripping H-1B in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. However, that growth has since slowed substantially.

A history of delays

It’s difficult to pin down one reason for the delays, said Hill-Dongre, who said USCIS processing times “for almost everything is slower than it used to be.” Data from the agency shows processing times for I-765 have nearly doubled since 2015. 

“I think it’s worth wondering about the cause of the longer processing times. Is it because they don’t have the goal to process as quickly anymore? Is it because they’re getting more applications? The data doesn’t seem to bear that out,” Hill-Dongre said. “It’s all speculation. But I don’t know that it’s clear that (the) statements about why it’s taking longer are the only factors at play.”

Sandra Feist, a Minneapolis-based immigration attorney, said the slowdowns are part of the anti-immigration climated fostered by the Trump administration. She’s seen delays for work authorization across the board, not just for foreign students.

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“Ultimately the laws haven’t changed because Congress wasn’t willing to change them, and so the administration has implemented its agenda of restricting legal immigration through these agency delays, which basically make it harder and slower to get work authorization (legal immigrants) are entitled to under the law,” said Feist. 

“You either are eligible or not eligible for a work card. It’s not like a complicated, nuanced, multi-level criteria that they have to do balancing. …  These are really, really easy applications to adjudicate.”

Lawmakers are starting to put pressure on USCIS to speed up their process. At a House Judiciary Committee oversight meeting on July 17, a California congresswoman expressed concern about stagnating OPT approvals to a panel of USCIS officials.

While Agustini waits for card in the mail, she is preparing to start work as a real estate consultant in August. She’s hoping her employment authorization will arrive by then. 

“It’s been challenging. I consider myself very lucky,” said Agustini. “If I didn’t have that job I wouldn’t be smiling.”