Emma is a 27-year-old Chinese national who is pregnant and living with her husband in New York. Emanuel, 23, lives in Virginia and is from Morocco. Peter, 31, moved from China in 2014. He resides in Houston, Texas.
Emma, Emanuel and Peter do not know each other, but they have one thing in common: Their international student immigration status is in jeopardy due to processing time delays in facilities overseen by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
At their request, VOA is only using pseudonyms.
These delays are affecting their ability to accept job offers because some employers are asking to see the receipt notice from their Optional Practical Training (OPT) application, which allows them to temporarily work in the country for up to a year in the field they studied.
The receipt notice is usually sent within weeks after initial intake at USCIS lockbox facilities. It is also the initial stage that takes place before any immigration petition can be reviewed and adjudicated by USCIS officers. Without it, the immigration agency is not able to find the applicant's name or petition in their computerized record system.
"I'm just so stressed every day," Emma told VOA. She graduated in 2020 with a master's degree in engineering from New York University and sent her OPT application in October.
Ninety days before graduation, foreign students in the United States on F-1 visas can apply for the OPT.
"I felt relieved when I got a job offer. But because I don't even have a receipt number, and my employer doesn't really know what is going on, I just don't know how long I'm able to hold the offer," she said.
VOA interviewed more than 10 students in the same situation and had access to chat rooms where hundreds more described reports of receipt notice delays at a Dallas USCIS lockbox facility. Because of their pending cases with USCIS, students requested that they remain anonymous or use pseudonyms.
Students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) and who have been previously approved for OPT may be eligible for a 24-month extension if they meet all requirements.
Those applying for extensions must file for work authorization within 90 days of the end of the first OPT.
According to Jessica Behm, an immigration lawyer in New York, if a student can continue working with the same employer, that person has a 180-day grace period and can work with an expired authorization card and an approved I-20 while waiting for his or her case to be adjudicated. The I-20 is a document issued by a U.S. government-approved institution showing the student has been admitted to a full-time study program and demonstrated sufficient financial resources to remain in the United States.
But first-time OPT applicants like Emma, Peter, and Emanuel never had a work authorization card and do not have grace periods.
Peter, a post-doctoral student at Texas A&M University, said his application was delivered to the Dallas lockbox on October 28. He has not received a receipt notice.
"I just finished my PhD a few weeks back. I'm actually working on renewable energy, and I just got a job in Houston. ... My employer is fully aware of what's going on. I'm very transparent with them," he said.
Depending on where an international student temporarily resides in the U.S., his or her OPT application is sent to a lockbox facility in Phoenix, Arizona, or in Dallas, Texas.
Increase in applications
In fiscal 2020, USCIS lockbox facilities processed more than 9.5 million applications.
Diane Rish, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told VOA that receipt notice delays are also impacting applicants across a range of visa categories.
Rish said the "uptick" in filings is likely due to an influx of adjustment of status applications and cases filed before a USCIS fee rule for applications was set to go into effect on October 2, 2020. A federal judge blocked the guideline, and the government dropped an appeal of the decision.
For international students, the number of applicants who have been affected by delays remains unclear.
Behm said one of her recommendations is for students to use certified mail so they get a firm receipt that the application was delivered to a lockbox in a timely manner.
In an email to VOA, a USCIS spokesperson said the setback in responses is due to the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and a recent increase in requests for immigration benefits.
On January 8, USCIS announced that federal workers are working extra hours and that the agency is "redistributing its workload in order to minimize delays."
"USCIS is actively determining appropriate methods to minimize those delays while prioritizing the health and safety of the agency's lockbox workforce," USCIS spokesperson Matthew Bourke said in a statement.
The immigration agency recommended that applicants submit forms online and create an online account to check the status of a case.
"Or attach a Form G-1145, E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance, to obtain receipt confirmation by email and/or text to help decrease relevant processing times," Bourke said.
Peter said he filed the G-1145 form, but "I would only receive an e-notification when the lockbox enters my (OPT) case into the system."
USCIS did not say what could happen to students who do not receive receipt notices in time to accept job offers.
For Peter, a gay Muslim, going back to China would mean hiding his religion and his sexuality.
"I've told my family not to disclose their religious beliefs. ... For me, if I go home, I will have to hide multiple identities, like my sexuality and my religious beliefs, and that's really bad," he said.
Failure to present a receipt notice also affects a student's ability to renew a driver's license in some U.S. states.
"That's another layer of complicating the overall situation. Many DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) locations will not renew your driver's license without receipt notices. So, it's a separate issue from work eligibility," Behm said.
Emanuel, who studied business administration at Northern Virginia Community College, applied for OPT to get some work experience before transferring to George Mason University in Virginia.
Emanuel said the situation has caused stress and anxiety, but because his family has paid for his education, he would like to leave the U.S. with some work experience.
According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the organization is aware of the delays at the lockboxes and they are in contact with the USCIS ombudsman.
Students said they have reached out to members of the U.S Congress, along with the USCIS Ombudsman's Office, and even started a petition regarding problems at the Dallas lockbox in Texas.
"We understand that there are delays, but at the same time, we need a word from someone. ... My plans were to receive my bachelor's degree and from there, make a decision (to stay or go back to Morocco), which is probably 100% now I'd like to go back (home)," Emanuel said.