Emma, a 27-year-old Chinese national who lives in New York with her husband and is pregnant. Emanuel, 23, is from Morocco and lives in Virginia. In 2014, Peter, 31, moved from China. He resides in the Texas town of Houston.
Emma, Emanuel and Peter do not know each other, but they have one thing in common. Because of processing time delays in facilities supervised by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, their international student immigration status is endangered (USCIS).
At their request, only pseudonyms are used by VOA. These delays affect their ability to accept job offers because some employers ask to see the notice of receipt from their Optional Practical Training (OPT) application, which allows them to work in the field they studied temporarily in the country for up to a year.
The receipt notice is normally sent at USCIS lockbox facilities within weeks after initial intake. It is also the original stage before USCIS officers can review and adjudicate any immigration petition. Without it, the immigration agency cannot locate the applicant’s name or petition in its computerized record system.
“Every day, I’m just so stressed,” Emma told VOA. She graduated from New York University with a master’s degree in engineering in 2020 and sent her OPT application in October.
International students in the United States on F-1 visas can apply for the OPT ninety days before graduation.
“When I got the job offer, I felt relieved. But because I don’t even have a receipt number, and because my employer doesn’t know what’s going on, I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to make an offer,’ she said.
More than ten students in the same situation were interviewed by VOA and had access to chat rooms where hundreds more described receipt notice delays at a lockbox facility in Dallas USCIS. Students demanded that they remain anonymous or use pseudonyms because of their pending cases with USCIS.
If all requirements are met, students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) and who have previously been approved for OPT may be eligible for a 24-month extension.
Those applying for extensions shall, within 90 days of the first OPT’s end, file for work authorization.
According to Jessica Behm, an immigration lawyer in New York, suppose a student can continue working with the same employer. In that case, that person has a 180-day grace period and can work with an expired authorization card and an approved I-20 while waiting for his or her case to be adjudicated. The I-20 is a document issued by a U.S. government-approved institution demonstrating that the student has been admitted to a full-time study program and has shown sufficient financial resources to stay in the U.S.
But OPT candidates such as Emma, Peter, and Emanuel never had a work authorization card for the first time and do not have grace periods.
Peter, a Texas A&M University post-doctoral student, said his application was delivered to the lockbox in Dallas on October 28. He has not obtained a notice of receipt.
“A few weeks back, I just finished my PhD. I’m working on renewable energy, and in Houston, I just got a job. My employer is fully aware of what is happening. With them, I’m very transparent,” he said.
His or her OPT application is sent to a lockbox facility in Phoenix, Arizona, or Dallas, Texas, depending on where an international student temporarily resides in the United States.
Increase in applications
USCIS lockbox facilities processed more than 9.5 million applications in fiscal 2020.
Diane Rish, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA that delays in receipt of notices also affect applicants across various categories of visas.
Rish said the “uptick” in filings is likely due to an influx of status request adjustments and cases filed before the entry into force of the USCIS fee rule for applications on October 2, 2020. A federal judge blocked the guide, and the government dropped an appeal of the decision.
The number of applicants who have been affected by delays remains unclear for international students.
Behm said one of her recommendations is to use certified mail for students to get a firm receipt that the application has been delivered promptly to a lockbox.
A USCIS spokesperson said in an email to VOA that the setback in responses is due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and a recent increase in immigration benefits requests.
On January 8, USCIS announced that federal workers are working extra hours and that the agency is “redistributing its workload to minimize delays.”
“USCIS is actively identifying suitable methods to minimize those delays while prioritizing the health and safety of the lockbox workforce of the agency,” said USCIS spokesman Matthew Bourke in a statement.
To check the status of a case, the immigration agency recommended that applicants submit online forms and create an online account.
“Bourke said, “Or attach Form G-1145, E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance, to obtain confirmation of receipt by email and text to help reduce the relevant processing times.
“Peter said he filed the G-1145 form, but “only when the lockbox enters my (OPT) case into the system would I receive an e-notification.
What could happen to students who do not receive receipt notices in time to accept job offers, USCIS did not say.
For Peter, a gay Muslim, hiding his religion and sexuality would mean going back to China.
“I told my family that they should not reveal their religious beliefs. For me, if I go home, multiple identities, like my sexuality and my religious beliefs, will have to be hidden, and that’s bad,’ he said.
In some U.S. states, failure to present a receipt notice also affects a student’s ability to renew a driver’s license.
That’s another layer that complicates the whole situation. Many DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) locations will not renew your driver’s licence without receipt notices. So, it’s a separate issue from eligibility for work,’ Behm said.
Before transferring to George Mason University in Virginia, Emanuel, who studied business administration at Northern Virginia Community College, applied for OPT to get some work experience.
Emanuel said the situation had caused stress and anxiety, but he would like to leave the U.S. with some work experience because his family has paid for his education.
The organization is aware of the delays in lock boxing, and they are in contact with the USCIS ombudsman, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Students said they, along with the USCIS Ombudsman’s Office, reached out to the U.S. Congress members and even began a petition regarding problems at the Dallas lockbox in Texas.
We understand there are delays, but we need a word from someone at the same time. I planned to get my bachelor’s degree and make a decision (to stay or go back to Morocco) from there, which is probably 100 per cent now that I would like to go back (home),’ Emanuel said.