Student Visas, OPT, and Green Cards: a Primer for International Students

KOTO HEADSHOT

By Koto Haramiishi, international student guest writer

Introduction

The majority of college international students wish to work and stay the United States after graduation. Their opportunities to work with a student visa, however, are limited when they first come to America. Nevertheless, both American and foreign students find it difficult to afford college tuition fees without any financial aid. Part time jobs are indeed indispensable for most college students. However, international students are not allowed to work off campus until they receive special permission to work by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The process and system for international students to work in the United States is totally different than the process for American students. While the number of international students in the United States continues to climb every year information on work eligibility remains spotty for many students. Because of the huge increase in international students and the little information available to them regarding work status, I decided to write this informational blogpost about how to gain employment within their student visa allowance.

There are two major options to work for students who are not U.S. citizens that I will discuss: OPT (including military) and green cards (marriage, asylum, and lottery).

OPT

For international students, OPT is the most common way to be able to work off campus. What is OPT? OPT is short for Optional Practical Training. OPT is a period during which undergraduate and graduate students on an F-1 status who have completed or have been attending college or university for more than nine months are permitted by the USCIS to work at a maximum of 12 months towards getting practical training to complete their field of study. This is open to every student on an F-1 Visa. Students must know that OPT applications take usually more than 3 months to process and requires a recommendation from their international student support office at their college. Furthermore, once the application arrives at USCIS, the student will not start until USCIS sends them an EAD card, which is proof that the student is an OPT holder. Students who major in STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics), will approved to work more for 17 months, due to a recent change in 2008.

The time cost and high expected grades in a student’s field of study to be qualified for OPT means that students would must start preparing for OPT eligibility if they want to work in the United States while they are students. According to one of my friends from Japan who attempted but did not get in, ‘OPT is only available to those who are planning to study more than 2 years. I do not have the intention to stay in U.S after college and also changed my major as well. But international students just want to earn money off campus while we are in college.’’ I assume that there are many exceptional cases, such as major changes that might confuse students who want to do OPT, because the job for which is OPT qualified has to be related the specific field that international students complete or are pursuing.

Green Cards: an Introduction

If students become lawful permanent residents, how does their OPT status change? The USCIS offers foreign nationals green cards, which are documents that gives them an authorization to live and work in the United States. In short, green card holders get most rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens (notable exceptions being voting in national elections or running for public office). As an international student, there are several ways to get a green card.

Green Card: Sponsoring Employers

The first method to get a green card is similar to an OPT program – through a sponsoring employer. It is less likely, and not everyone can have this option, but if one is highly-skilled and considered as a person who can contribute a lot to the company, the company may sponsor of the student by applying for the National Interests Waiver.

Green Card: Marriage

The second common way is through marriage. Getting married to a U.S. citizen is the easiest way to get a green card. You must live together and know each other or other things that married couples normally do because immigration officials conduct interviews of the married couple in order to confirm that the marriage is real. Once a green card application is approved, the person will get a temporary 2 years valid green card, and then they will get a permanent one.

Green  Card: Lottery

For another option, it is worth it to try the Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery, which is as the name indicates, is an annual lottery for immigrants from diverse countries to get a green card.

Green Card: Asylum

The third method of getting a green card is applying for asylum. What is an asylum seeker? The most common kind is a refugee – someone who is fleeing their home country because if they go back, they will be killed by or tortured by their government. This is unusual for international students, but not unheard of. If you can prove that if you return to your home country because you will face government sponsored torture, the United States will not deport you.

Green Card: Military Service

The final way to get a green card is to enroll in military service. However, the military service green card it requires applicants to have lived in the United States at least 2 years before enlisting, and enlistees must have good health. OPT permits applicants to work in the military as well, as long as their job within the military is related to their field of study.

Crimes and Work Eligibility

Crimes are very serious for all students. Committing a crime means that you could face jail, fines, mandatory community service, and loss of financial aid and housing options. A criminal record will also limit students’ future employment options because employers do not want to hire criminals. However, for international students, the immigration consequences are very severe. If you are an international student, commit a crime and are convicted, you may have disqualified yourself from applying for a green card and/or OPT status. The United States lets students work in the country with the condition that they are law abiding people. If an international student is convicted of a crime, especially a serious crime, then the United States can reject the person’s visa application.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, many international students try and fail to gain legal rights to work and live permanently in the United States, because there is so much demand for green cards and OPT status and not enough supply. International students sometimes have to be satisfied with minimum wage on campus jobs until they get qualified to apply for a green card or OPT. The United States is not the only one state that has strict rules and policies for immigration work adjustment status, because security in this country is prioritized.

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