ISO responds to work authorization delays affecting international students’ internships

Nineteen OPT applications are pending past requested start date

As of Sunday, 43 graduate students and two undergraduate students have filed Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization applications, David Elwell, associate dean and director of MIT’s International Students Office (ISO), wrote in an email to The Tech.

Fifteen of these applications have been approved, seven have been changed to Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorizations, and 23 are still pending, Elwell wrote. All of the students with pending applications are graduate students.

“Nineteen of those applications have extended beyond the internship start date while four are still within the timeframe of the requested start date,” Elwell continued.

OPT is run through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and processing times are taking more than 90 days — the maximum time in advance a student can apply — in some cases.

As a result, some international students at MIT and other universities have been unable to start their summer internships, incurring opportunity and financial costs.

CPT, on the other hand, is authorized by the university. The average processing time is around two weeks, according to the ISO’s website.

Most MIT students are able to obtain authorization via CPT — 415 at this time, according to Elwell — but since CPT can only be granted for work that fulfills a degree requirement or counts for academic credit in one’s major, not all students at MIT are currently eligible to apply.

In response, some are calling on MIT to expand CPT to all students, including through a petition started by Cathy ’20 that has collected over 500 signatures.

[For more information on the petition and other student perspectives on this issue, see here.]

Cathy told The Tech in a phone interview Monday that she presented the petition to President L. Rafael Reif, Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, and the ISO. The discussion now also includes the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council.

“The issue with CPT at MIT is that it is currently not offered to all MIT students. If you are not declared in a major that offers CPT, then you don’t have that opportunity,” Cathy wrote in an email to The Tech.  

Cathy also emphasized, “Just because two undergraduates applied for OPT does not mean that it didn’t affect a larger population. People are often deterred from the OPT process and end up being limited to work-study positions at the institute or internships in their home country.”

Cathy, who was supposed to begin her internship June 3, has been unable to due to the OPT delays. She learned Monday that her application was approved Friday, but before she can start working, she must receive her employment authorization card, which she estimates will take another 7–10 days to arrive by mail, Cathy said in the interview and emails with The Tech.

MIT is helping impacted students through “education, administrative support, and advocacy,” Elwell wrote.

In particular, according to Elwell, the ISO is reaching out to the 23 students to address possible financial consequences of the delays, and for applications that are pending past the intended start date, the ISO can advise students on “expedited request procedures,” “have conversations with employers,” and help to “resolve any USCIS errors.”

The ISO also tracks the delays and works to advocate on behalf of international students to the USCIS and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Elwell wrote.

As for expanding the availability of CPT, Elwell wrote that since 2015, at least 12 MIT academic programs have added “CPT-eligible opportunities.”

“In the coming year, we will continue our efforts to encourage departments to put in place professional development and experiential learning requirements,” Elwell wrote. “We are also exploring broader long-term solutions that are related to curricular requirements for experiential learning. These will need to be considered through the faculty governance process.”

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