Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its enforcement actions related to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Occupational Practical Training (STEM OPT) Program. Specifically, ICE’s random site inspections at STEM OPT program sponsor sites, have become increasingly intrusive and investigatory in nature. The purposes of these inspections are to ensure that employers are not deviating from any part of the training plan, verify that a STEM OPT student employee-employer relationship truly is bona fide; and impose penalties for non-compliance on either the employer or the employee.
The STEM OPT Program is available to eligible F-1 Nonimmigrant Visa students with STEM degrees from accredited U.S. colleges or universities. Eligible students may apply for an additional 24 months of Occupational Practical Training in addition to the initial, one-year post-completion Occupational Practical Training (OPT) granted to all non-STEM-degree F-1 Nonimmigrant Visa students. In addition to a STEM degree from an accredited U.S. college or university, a student seeking to qualify for the STEM OPT program, must secure employment with a bona fide employer that requires a minimum of 20-hours of work per week and provides formal, practical training and learning within the STEM field.
A random STEM OPT inspection must not be taken lightly, and ample preparation is necessary. STEM OPT students and employers must be ready to answer questions and turn over documents without notice. During an inspection, ICE officers will speak to the student trainee, any immediate supervisors, management, human resources personnel and, possibly others, to ensure that all STEM OPT Program requirements are met. In addition, ICE agents will take photos of the employer’s place of business and ask to review all training documents, evaluations, pay reports, plans, reviews, student work product, and other documents that are relevant to STEM OPT-specific employment. If the student’s training is offsite, ICE will proceed to visit him or her at the offsite location.
Preparation is critical to prevent a finding of non-compliance. Employers should designate one individual company representative as the only point-of-contact with any investigators or auditors. Moreover, the point-of-contact, the STEM OPT employee, and any management should be trained on how best to answer possible audit questions and what questions should not be answered. Finally, employers are encouraged to maintain audit files containing all relevant STEM OPT form copies and supporting documents.
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