Work authorization delays interfere with international students’ summer internships

‘The only thing I can do is to wait,’ student says

International students at MIT and many other universities who applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization are experiencing widespread government processing delays, preventing them from starting their summer internships.

Cathy ’20 was supposed to start her internship June 3, but she is still waiting for her OPT application — submitted in February — to be processed, according to a phone interview and emails with The Tech.

Cathy started a petition, which she intends to present to President L. Rafael Reif and the International Students Office (ISO) Monday.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires that students apply for OPT no more than 90 days before their projected start dates. In past years, this has typically been enough time for applications to be approved, but this year, processing times appear to be stretching towards four to five months, the petition said.

To remedy this situation, the petition called for MIT to allow all international undergraduate students to obtain Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization “in an expedited manner.”

CPT differs from OPT in that it is authorized through the university rather than USCIS. The average processing time is around two weeks, according to the ISO website.

However, students can only be granted CPT if the off-campus work either fulfills a degree requirement or counts for academic credit under a course number in their major. “MIT does offer CPT through some academic departments, but not all,” the petition explained.

Some universities are beginning to make changes to their policies to accommodate the processing delays.

Yale University announced June 4 that it will offer a new course in the fall, “Fieldwork Practicum Analysis,” through which students can obtain CPT. Dartmouth University has also begun offering CPT — about 15 students have started the process as of Saturday morning and the provost expects that they will receive their authorization by Monday, according to The Dartmouth.

As for MIT, the ISO is “working closely” with students who are waiting for their OPT applications to be approved, David Elwell, associate dean and director of the ISO, wrote in an emailed statement to The Tech.

“It is worth noting that each case is unique, but all of these students awaiting OPT permission have already been vetted at least once by the government through their approved visa application to study in the U.S.,” Elwell wrote.

As of press time, Elwell did not respond to The Tech’s follow-up questions, including in what specific ways MIT is working with students and whether MIT is able to expand CPT availability.

The petition also asks that MIT offer students financial assistance, contact the Department of Homeland Security or USCIS about the delays, or provide alternate solutions. Over 500 people have signed the petition as of Friday afternoon, Cathy said in her interview.  

“Even just a couple days of delay can impact someone’s summer entirely,” Cathy said. “There’s just so much uncertainty in the air that it’s incredibly stressful. … There’s a huge opportunity cost, as well as actual financial losses.”

Di Jin G applied for OPT on March 12 with a start date of June 10, but his application is still being processed, he told The Tech in a phone interview. In the meantime, Jin is unable to begin his internship, and it seems to him that no one other than the USCIS can “alter or check the situation.”  

“The only thing I can do is to wait,” Jin said.

Zhen Meng G was also unsuccessfully waiting for his OPT application, mailed March 20, to be approved — before choosing to apply for CPT instead, he said in a phone interview with The Tech. Meng was granted CPT Friday, in time for his internship start date Monday.

Meng noted that he was only able to apply for CPT due to his particular degree program, and said that to help students in similar situations, MIT could offer CPT to more students, as CPT appears to be the “most efficient way” to obtain work authorization.

Recent graduates of MIT are also being affected by the OPT delays. CPT is only for currently enrolled students, so they must apply for “post-completion” OPT — and they can only do so at most 90 days before graduation.

Kimberly Villalobos Carballo ’19, whose OPT has not been approved, is currently in New York, having paid for housing for an internship she cannot start. The situation is frustrating because there’s “absolutely nothing you could have [done] or can do now,” she said in a phone interview with The Tech.

Villalobos Carballo said that while her company has been understanding, she estimates that if her OPT is approved, she will miss at least two weeks of her eight week internship.

Faisal As’ad ’19 said in a phone interview with The Tech that he applied for OPT at the end of February, but he has yet to receive authorization.

As’ad decided that he could not afford to continue waiting any longer, and has given up on his summer internship, which was supposed to start Monday. In addition to losing the work experience, the delays have had a financial toll, too — a $410 OPT application fee, last-minute, expensive flights home to Jordan, and housing deposits.

As’ad said that the ISO just kept telling him to wait, and while he does not blame them for not having more information, he hopes that they push the U.S. government to be more transparent about the process.

“It’s just frustrating because you’re in this position where you start thinking, ‘Oh, what could I have done differently?’ But you already applied as early as they would allow you, [and then] you start wondering, ‘Why don’t they let you apply earlier?’” As’ad said. “The whole system is pretty messed up. It’s red taped — trying to prevent internationals from working in the U.S.”

Update 6/21/19: The article was updated to remove Cathy's last name due to privacy concerns.