On August 12, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a decision in Washington Alliance of Technology Workers v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security vacating the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2008 rule which extends the duration of optional practical training (OPT) for eligible STEM students. However, the court stayed the effect of its ruling until February 12, 2016 – allowing DHS a 6-month window to remedy the defect the court found fatal to the 2008 rule as enacted.
By way of background, in 2008, DHS promulgated the regulation at issue which extended the period of OPT by 17 months for F-1 foreign nationals with a qualifying STEM degree. Prior to the 2008 regulation, a foreign national F-1 student could only be authorized for 12 months of OPT, which had to be completed within 14 months following the student’s completion of h/her course of study. Accordingly, the 2008 rule allowed F-1 STEM students to engage in a maximum 29 months of OPT.
Broadly stated, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (an association representing U.S. STEM workers) challenged the validity of the 2008 rule alleging it impermissibly circumvented H-1B caps by authorizing foreign nationals to work in STEM fields without complying with the labor certification and prevailing wage requirements of the H-1B program.
In addressing this claim, the court found DHS was within its discretionary authority delegated by Congress under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to allow foreign students to engage in employment for practical training purposes. Therefore, the DHS reasonably interpreted the operative provisions of the INA in forming the 2008 OPT STEM rule.
However, in vacating the 2008 rule, the court determined DHS erred in issuing the rule without the requisite notice or public comment period(s) normally required of a federal executive branch agency (unless impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest) before enacting such a regulation.
In so finding, the court found unpersuasive DHS’ argument that it was necessary to issue the rule without the inherent delay of notice and comment in order to forestall a national fiscal emergency occasioned by F-1 students (in expiring OPT status) being forced to leave the U.S. but for the 17 month extension.
Fortunately, the court recognized immediate annulment of the 2008 rule would cause a substantial hardship for foreign students and a major labor disruption for the tech sector. Therefore, the court stayed the effect of its order until February 12, 2016, so that DHS can submit the 2008 rule for proper notice and comment.
Do not hesitate to contact Sharma Law Offices if you have any questions regarding your status as it relates to STEM OPT and this important decision. We will continue to monitor DHS’ response to the decision in the coming months.