Monthly Archives: July 2020

SEVP Modifies COVID-19 Exemptions for F-1 and M-1 Students: In-Person Classes Required in Fall 2020

On Monday, July 6, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced changes to the exemptions for F-1 and M-1 students taking online classes due to the pandemic. Under the new policy, international students may not remain in the U.S. to take a full online course load in Fall 2020 without accruing unlawful presence and being subject to removal (deportation) proceedings. F-1 and M-1 visas or admissions to the U.S. in such status will not be given to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester.

What is the New Policy?

The SEVP is part of the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). A July 6 announcement on ICE’s website lists the changes to temporary exemptions for the fall 2020 semester:

1. Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States. Active students currently in the United States enrolled in such programs must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status. If not, they may face immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings.

2. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools operating under normal in-person classes are bound by existing federal regulations. Eligible F students may take a maximum of one class or three credit hours online.

3. Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model — that is, a mixture of online and in person classes — will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” certifying that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.

Schools are instructed to update their information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) within 10 days of the change if they begin the fall semester with in-person classes but later switch to only online classes, or a nonimmigrant student changes course selections, and as a result, ends up taking an entirely online course load.

What are the Effects of the New Policy?

F-1 students pursue academic coursework while M-1 students pursue vocational coursework in the United States.

U.S. federal regulation at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G) states that F-1 students may take only one online class or 3 credits per session, term, semester, trimester or quarter that count toward their degree or full course of study requirement. 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v) states M-1 students may not count online courses toward a full course of study.

An online course is one that does not require physical attendance for classes, examination or other activities integral to course completion. It is offered primarily through the use of television, audio, or computer transmission.

Previous COVID-19 Exemptions

On March 9, 2020, SEVP issued guidance titled Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Potential Procedural Adaptions for F and M nonimmigrant students. This prior policy allowed F and M students to continue studies by taking online courses in the spring and summer semesters to meet federal regulations. It allowed them to take more online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic than what is permitted by federal regulations.

There was no requirement prohibiting a full online course load or any other restrictions for F and M students enrolled and already in the U.S. The SEVP permitted schools to change their procedures to comply with state or local state health emergency rules. Schools were not required to give prior notice of these changes and only had to report changes to SEVP within 10 business days.

Updated COVID-19 Exemptions

As of Fall 2020, the updated policy makes in-person classes mandatory for F and M students to meet the full-time course study requirements. This is a shift from the more flexible COVID-19 exemptions that SEVP gave to schools and students for the spring and summer semesters of 2020.

Nonimmigrant Students in the United States

Current F and M students may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States without violating the law. If students find all their courses will be online, they must leave the country or seek to maintain their status such as by requesting authorization for a reduced course load or switching to a school that offers in-person classes. Students who fall out of status and accrue unlawful presence are subject to being put in removal proceedings before an Immigration Court.

Normal In-Person Classes

If the school offers normal in-person classes, F students must comply with federal regulation by taking only one online class or 3 credit hours per session, term, semester, trimester or quarter.

Hybrid Model with In-Person and Online Classes

If the school offers a hybrid model with a combination of in-person and online classes, F students may take more than one online class or three credit hours online.  What this really means is that the class includes a mix of online lectures or activities and in-person lectures or activities. Hybrid schools must certify on the Form I-20 that the program is not fully online, the student is not taking an entirely online course load, and the student is taking the minimum number of online classes for Fall 2020 to make normal progress.   

No Online Classes for F-1 Students in English Language Training Programs or M-1 Students

None of the exemptions for taking online classes, including the hybrid model, are allowed for F students in English Language training programs or for M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees.  The regulations at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(G) and 8 CFR 214.2(m)(9)(v) do not permit online classes for such students.

[UPDATE, July 15, 2020: U.S. district judge Allison D. Burroughs announced on Tuesday, July 14, that the Trump Administration had agreed to back down in a lawsuit over the policy filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previous COVID-19 exemptions — which allow foreign students to remain in the U.S. to study even if their classes have all moved online — will continue to apply. The new policy will apply only to incoming students.]

Nonimmigrant Students Outside the United States

The U.S. Department of State (U.S. Embassies and Consulates) will not issue F and M visas to applicants who plan to attend schools that offer courses entirely online in Fall 2020.

Even if they have a valid F or M visa, students will not be admitted to the United States by CBP if all the program-related courses are online only for Fall 2020.

Form I-20 Updates

F and M students must get an updated Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, stating the school is not operating in full online courses mode and the student is not taking full online courses for Fall 2020 semester. This information goes in the Remarks field of the I-20.

SEVP plans to re-issue I-20s for Fall 2020 within 21 business days of the announcement (i.e. by August 4, 2020). Priority will be given to fall 2020 students arriving from outside the United States.

Current F-1 students with approved Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during program studies or with approved Optional Practical Training (OPT) or STEM OPT after program completion may remain in active status and continue their training.

Continuing F and M students, whose schools offer only online courses for Fall 2020, can keep active status if they stay outside the United States and take full online courses to meet visa requirements. They must get a new I-20 indicating they are abroad taking a full course load as the school is offering only online courses for Fall 2020.

Conclusion

The updated policy is not fully clear and schools are awaiting further guidance from SEVP, ICE. The student visa restrictions were introduced soon after the pandemic-related suspension on H, L and J visa and certain immigrant visas.

With the ending of the temporary exemptions that were granted back in March, F and M students may not lawfully remain in the United States if their school goes fully or, in some cases, partly online. To maintain status or to receive a visa or entry to the United States, the student has to take in-person classes or, in the case of F-1 students, classes that involve a mix of in-person and online attendance.

Schools that planned to operate remotely, in COVID-19 times, might need to rethink their strategy to keep their F and M students. Schools that do not at least offer a hybrid model of in-person and online classes will face a significant loss in revenue (tuition and fees from international students).

The updated policy could serve as a catalyst for colleges and universities to reopen campuses, as states continue to lift restrictions that were implemented to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. There is flexibility in that schools may use hybrid models that are not 100% online to keep F-1 students.

Some international students might not want to bear exposure to the virus by attending classes in person. But, under the new rule, this is unavoidable if they wish to maintain their status or to obtain an F-1 or M-1 visa and be admitted to the United States for the Fall 2020 semester.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Work Permit Fraud May Lead to Visa Revocation, Visa Denial and INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i) Inadmissibility

On June 26, Weiyun “Kelly” Huang, owner of the fictitious companies, Findream LLC and Sinocontech LLC, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for conspiracy to commit visa fraud. Her companies provided false employment verification records to foreign nationals seeking F-1 or H-1B visa status.

The U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) played a key role in the investigation, which created ripple effects on persons who received F-1 or H-1B work authorization by presenting a job offer letter, payroll records or other employment verification documents from Findream or Sinocontech.

F-1 and H-1B Work Authorization Requires Legitimate Employment

An F-1 visa allows an international student to study in the United States at a university or other academic institution.  F students may engage in practical training during their academic program or after it ends. Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) are the two types of training that provide work experience related to the field of study.

Eligible students may apply for up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion). All periods of pre-completion OPT, however, are deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT.

The OPT employment can be part time (at least 20 hours per week on post-completion OPT) or full time; involve multiple short-term employers, contract work, self-employment, or agency work; and be paid or unpaid (as a volunteer or intern, as long as labor laws are not violated). The student must report all employment to their Designated School Official (DSO) to maintain status.

While a job offer is not required to apply for OPT, the student may not have a cumulative total of 90 days of unemployment during the 12-month OPT period. Otherwise, they fall out of status and begin to accrue unlawful presence.

Students may apply for an additional 24 months of OPT if they have a degree and are employed in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) field. For the 24-month STEM OPT extension, the DSO requires the student to have an existing job offer from a U.S. employer and to submit a completed Form I-983 (training plan) that is signed by the student and employer.

Section 3 to Section 6 on the Form I-983 requests information on the company, the agreed-upon practical training schedule and compensation, and the formal training plan, respectively. Unlike regular OPT employment, STEM OPT employment must be paid.

An H-1B visa allows U.S.-based employers to temporarily employ foreign nationals in specialty occupations. Foreign nationals with H-1B status may stay in the U.S. for three years, with the possibility of extending their stay for a total of six years. H-1B status may be extended beyond the six-year limit in certain situations, such as when 365 days or more have passed since the filing of an application for labor certification or immigrant petition (Form I-140) for the beneficiary.

F-1 students with a timely filed H-1B petition and change of status request, and whose F-1 employment authorization will expire before the change of status to H-1B occurs (typically October 1), may be eligible for a cap-gap extension in the United States. In many cases, the OPT employment or STEM OPT employment is what allows the F-1 student to change to H-1B status without departing for visa processing at the U.S. Consulate.

ICE Investigations of Work Permit Fraud Schemes Continue

ICE’s crackdown on F-1 and H-1B visa fraud schemes spell trouble for international students and foreign national workers who use fake job offers to obtain F-1 OPT, F-1 STEM OPT, F-1 CPT, or H-1B status.

ICE may conduct on-site visits to confirm the visa holder is actually working for the employer and performing the appropriate duties. When little-known companies like Findream and Sinocontech show a high number of F-1 OPT and STEM OPT workers, this can prompt further investigation.

In March 2019, the United States filed a criminal complaint against the owner of Findream, with an affidavit from an FBI Special Agent stating it was a company on paper only, with no actual physical presence, and was created for the purpose of providing false verifications of employment to F-1 visa holders seeking to extend their stay in the U.S. via the OPT program.

The indictment stated that Huang advertised Findream as a “startup company in technology services and consulting,” with clients in China and the U.S.  She used a China-based website, “Chinese Looking for Job,” and a China-based WeChat platform, “Job Hunters of North America,” to advertise Findream and Sinocontech to F-1 visa holders in the U.S. seeking employment and H-1B visas.

The companies did not deliver any technology or consulting services, or employ any of the individuals who responded to the ads, the indictment stated. In exchange for a fee, Huang and the companies provided job offer letters and employment verification letters as proof of employment, the charges alleged. Falsified payroll records and tax forms were also said to be provided.

According to the indictment, the fraud scheme allowed at least 2,685 customers to list Findream or Sinocontech as their employer to extend their F-1 status. Subsequently, many F-1 and H-1B visa holders, particularly from China, had their visas revoked or denied or were refused entry to the United States (following travel abroad) because they had listed Findream or Sinocontech to receive work authorization.

These types of ICE investigations are ongoing. Recent reports indicate that F-1 students, most from India, have received notifications from U.S. Consulates that their visas have been revoked because they used job offer letters from Integra Technologies LLC and AZTech Technologies LLC to obtain OPT, STEM OPT and, in some cases, CPT work permits.

Through direct contact and consultations with applicants, we have also learned that F-1 and H-1B visa holders are being refused admission at the U.S. port of entry if they previously held work authorization by claiming they were employed by these companies. Expedited removal orders and lifetime inadmissibility charges of fraud or misrepresentation are being made by CBP for this reason.

Data from ICE shows that Integra Technologies and AZTech Technologies were 2nd and 6th, respectively, on the list of Top 200 Employers for OPT and STEM OPT Students, which includes well-known companies like Amazon, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Deloite, Facebook and Apple. (NOTE: At least two other companies, Wireclass and Aandwill LLC, have been linked with Integra and AzTech.)

Fraud or Willful Misrepresentation of Material Fact to Obtain U.S. Immigration Benefits is a Permanent Inadmissibility Ground

Federal agencies including ICE and USCIS have made it a priority to deter and detect immigration fraud and have increased site visits, interviews, and investigations of petitioners who use the F-1 OPT and H-1B visa programs. One reason is to protect the “many American workers who are as qualified, willing, and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged,” according to the agencies.

Submitting a bogus job offer letter, employment verification letter, payroll records or other documents to maintain or obtain F-1 or H-1B status creates the risk of a visa revocation or visa refusal. It may also lead to the denial of admission and an expedited removal order at the U.S. port of entry.

Whether the F-1 or H-1B visa holder knowingly pays a company for false employment verification is sometimes unclear. The pattern involves the company initiating contact with the beneficiary and requesting payment of a “training fee” at the outset. The job offer or training program might seem real in the beginning. But at some point, it becomes obvious there is no real job.

Persons who claim to have a legitimate job offer to gain an F-1 extension or H-1B status — when there is actually no job — are subject to being found permanently inadmissible. When you present false employment verification records to show you performed job duties and got paid for such duties (in order to receive a visa or lawful status in the United States) you risk being charged with a lifetime inadmissibility ban under INA 212(a)(6)(C)(i)(fraud or willful misrepresentation of material facts to gain U.S. immigration benefits).

In unique situations, the person may challenge a section 212(a)(6)(C)(i) bar by filing a formal motion to reconsider with the appropriate agency, such as CBP or the U.S. Consulate. In most cases, the person will need a 212(d)(3) nonimmigrant waiver or Form I-601/INA 212(i) immigrant waiver.

The 212(d)(3) waiver has relatively flexible eligibility standards, which includes addressing the risk of harm to society if the person is admitted to the United States, the magnitude of the U.S. immigration violation that caused the inadmissibility, and the importance of seeking the visa. The Form I-601 waiver has stricter requirements because the person must have a qualifying relative (U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent) who will suffer extreme hardship if the person is not admitted to the United States.

If you are caught up in or benefited from an F-1 or H-1B visa fraud scheme, consult a qualified U.S. immigration attorney to discuss possible remedies. Ongoing and willful participation in the scheme might seem like a victimless offense, but it carries serious and permanent U.S. immigration consequences.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Presenting Minnesota CLE live webcast, Thursday, July 2 at 12 pm: Finding Your Rhythm – When to Do What

On Thursday, July 2, join me on Zoom for a Minnesota CLE live webcast, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do Focused Work, Process Emails, Brainstorm Ideas, and Make Decisions.

Attorneys routinely keep too many things on their to-do list, feel overwhelmed with busyness, and prioritize other people’s requests over their truly important tasks. They are often told to manage their time better, multitask more, work smarter, or put in longer hours to get more done. But attempting to keep up with rising demands while neglecting to consider energy peaks and valleys create an unsustainable path to productivity. 

In this presentation, you will learn how to:

  • Work with your natural rhythm or internal body clock instead of burning yourself out or staying stuck  
  • Use your preferred sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and rest-activity cycle (ultradian rhythm) to plan your day
  • Choose the best times to perform high cognitive tasks, communicate with clients, spark insights, solve problems, and rest and recharge
  • Boost your energy level and reduce overwhelm by practicing simple daily habits 

Finding your rhythm will help you fulfill your ethical duties of diligence (Rule 1.3), competence (Rule 1.1) and communication (Rule 1.4).

This is a reprise of a webcast CLE that I presented back in December 2019, when most lawyers were commuting to the office instead of working from home or working remotely. In the midst of the pandemic shutdowns and restrictions, it’s especially important to find your rhythm and stay focused on what really matters. 

To register, click HERE

See you there,

Dyan Williams

U.S. Immigration & Legal Ethics Attorney
Author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist