Earlier this summer, three different friends proposed marriage to me, back to back. I was wrapping up journalism grad school at NYU and was flattered, even touched. And I said “maybe” to all three.
My American friends didn’t fully understand the bureaucratic dance of work permits, OPT (Optional Practical Training), EAD (Employment Authorization Document) cards, and student visas that are required of foreign students. But they did understand that I’d have to leave the country soon after I graduated if my “authorization” was denied or I did not have a job offer in hand, within 90 days, after receiving said work authorization. Thus the very devoted yet friendly offer of marriage. (For any USCIS agents keeping tabs on me and possibly reading this: Don’t worry, if it happens I’ll only marry an American out of love—or health insurance.)
In early July, while fretting over my uncertain future, my mom—with whom every phone and text conversation now began with “Did your card arrive?” and ended with “Did you find a job?”—asked if I wanted her to drain her retirement fund and measly savings, sell off the only bare-bones assets she has, and take on a massive loan against her single-parent salary that put a roof over her and my little brother’s heads and sent my younger sister to college, all to buy me a business investment visa in America. (This would have been an absurd overreaction, especially considering my business acumen peaked at 20 with me selling cupcakes to high schoolers.)
Expats I ran into suggested I enroll in an online Masters program that seldom met, paying thousands of dollars for a class each semester to learn something I had no desire to, while working on the side in hopes of having a job lined up by the time I graduated. Some relatives and family friends were even ready to speed dial all their Muslim matchmakers in the States, to find me marriage prospects with an American passport.
All of this to be able to stay. For a visa. For the American Dream that my entire family, out of which I am the first person to ever move to the States for school and stay because I finally found a job, back in Pakistan and Oman still desperately and deeply believes in. Ask all my aunts and uncles what they want for their kids, and this would be it.
This is hardly a unique picture when it comes to international students, even if we don’t really know what the American Dream is at this point, we suspect that it’s a scam. But it’s one that we willingly, even enthusiastically, fall for over and over and over again, because the alternative is more uncertain than the scam.
The OPT program is the easiest and sometimes the only option for the 1.09 million international students in the United States to be able to work here after they graduate. With an OPT, getting a degree can earn you a year of employment within your field, with the possibility of an extension of two more years if you’re a STEM student. Once that year has run out, you must either find an employer to sponsor you for the highly coveted H1B visa that’s offered in a yearly lottery, apply for the extremely rare and tricky O1 visa that can require upwards of $5,000 in legal fees and where you need to be able to provide evidence of your brilliance and necessity to America (Justin Bieber has this one), enroll in another academic program, or leave.
Bureaucratically clunky at the best of times, OPT this year has seen an increase in processing times that has left numerous students in limbo. Sherif Barsoum, New York University’s associate vice president for global services, said in an email that some students had lost jobs and internships they had landed while waiting for OPT approval and that “it may get worse before it gets better.”
While waiting for my very much delayed OPT that I applied for in March, I was trapped. I couldn’t freelance while hoping to enter an industry where full-time jobs are rare and the accrual of clips is your best bet of standing out… or of collecting a paycheck. I couldn’t work part-time. I couldn’t work in a restaurant or a coffee shop or a bar, or babysit. I couldn’t even travel back home to see the family I only see once or twice a year—because you can’t leave the country while your OPT application is pending.
I’m far from the first to point this out, but it’s deeply ironic hearing the political right bemoan immigrants for not immigrating “legally” to this country. While I despise the ideal immigrant narrative for reducing people to the monetary worth that can be squeezed out of them, I’m also acutely aware that international students feed America an estimated $39 billion dollars a year in economic activity, padding American colleges with the exorbitant tuition fees only international students are charged while getting little sympathy or support; mostly we’re accused of stealing American jobs. All the while waiting for unnecessarily complicated work permits that will allow us to maybe hold a minimum wage internship. And under the current administration, we’re increasingly drowning in inefficient processes and unexplained delays.
Students can apply for OPT no earlier than 90 days before their graduation date and no later than 60 days afterwards. Until two years ago, this worked out well, as the processing time for OPT was 90 days or less: Students could pick a date where they might be starting work and apply accordingly (if they had a job or internship lined up) or apply later to have the most time for a job search while not having to juggle finals and a full class load at the same time.
Starting in January 2017, however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services increased its processing time, with schools first notifying students this spring that they might have to wait up to five months for their OPT.
A representative from the media affairs division of USCIS, Matthew Bourke, said in a statement, “USCIS recently experienced a surge in employment authorization requests related to Optional Practical Training. As a result, earlier this summer there were delays associated with some cases pending beyond the standard 90-day processing time. USCIS devoted additional resources to this workload and the processing time is again under 90 days.”
Still, it’s not a stretch to wonder if the delays aren’t part of a larger effort by the anti-immigration Trump administration to effectively cripple another form of legal immigration. According to a report by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, an “analysis of recently published U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data reveals crisis-level delays in the agency’s processing of applications and petitions for immigration benefits under the Trump administration.”
Last month, a Palestinian teenager set to begin his first year at Harvard had his visa revoked and was deported for no discernable reason. After massive public outcry and the work of advocacy groups, he was eventually allowed entry and was able to start his classes last week.
Congress has finally begun questioning USCIS about the massive delays in OPT and H1B visas, under the initiative of U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. (A request for comment on recent efforts was not returned by Lofgren’s office in time for publication.)
Meanwhile, international student enrollment in the States has seen the largest drop since 9/11, according to Bloomberg, with the number of student visas issued falling from about 644,000 in fiscal 2015 to about 394,000 in fiscal 2017.
In response to the heightened visa delays, local and student publications across the country have penned letters and petitions and documented the extent of delays and their many repercussions: In addition to losing jobs, students have had to return to their home country, dip into savings, rely on their parents to make rent, or take on massive levels of credit card debt to pay bills, utilities, and buy groceries. A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that international journalism students at Columbia were still waiting on their OPT and unable to start internships and jobs at highly coveted organizations like WNYC and Financial Times. A request for comment to Columbia to ascertain whether there were students still waiting for OPT was not returned in time for publication.
When asked what The New School had done to help their students who were facing OPT delays, Amy Malsin, senior director of communications and public affairs at TNS wrote in an email that the school has "significantly shortened the number of days it takes to review each student's OPT application before making the OPT recommendation and instructing the student."
Malsin added, "We offer more OPT workshops earlier in the semester and strongly encourage students to apply for OPT as soon as they are able (90 days before their program end date). And we have created a special OPT newsletter to keep students abreast of developments and help them develop a financial plan to manage employment gaps due to OPT delays.”
This March, when I began applying for full-time journalism jobs, I also sent in my OPT application, which requires: all your student documents since you’ve been in the States (including from previously attended schools and degrees), a check for $410, photos, two different forms, your proof of legal entrance into the country, and photocopies of your passport and visa. This application then needs to be proofed and checked by advisors from your school and arranged in a particular sorting order. In May, I made it my full-time job to apply for jobs and internships.
But when you combine the impossibility of finding a job in media with a delayed and uncertain OPT, it’s a whole other beast. Here are the timelines I was trying to match: wait for my EAD card and refresh the website with my ticket number every day, while applying for jobs that would either wait or be happy to pick a start date later enough that my card might arrive by then. The New York Times Licensing Group revoked their offer of a fact-checking internship when my card had still not arrived more than three months later. I was living off of credit cards, the amount of debt I had climbing every day, and my rent was arriving from my mother across the world.
And still, I was one of the very lucky ones. I had credit cards and a parent who was more than happy to help me. Many students do not have that safety net, and had to return home because they couldn’t afford rent and food or because they had pre-bought expensive tickets to their home country that would have gone to waste. And after living with over 15 recruiting and career pages open in Safari for five months straight and mass applying to dozens of jobs around the country—not to mention toying with marriage—I finally landed a job at Vanity Fair a week before my very late OPT was finally approved, with my card on the way…
As of a few days ago, every international student who is graduating in December, 90 days from now, could begin sending in their OPT applications. They’ll be putting stacks of documents in military order and writing checks that are on average half a month’s rent in New York City. It’s this or the ticket home.
With the government now grilling people about their friends' social media posts while deporting them and requiring tourists to enter social media information during their visa application, it’s no shocker that not many international students want to speak out criticizing USCIS, the Trump administration, or this process. I’m only able to write this article now because my OPT was finally approved; if I’d tried to do so this summer, it would have been illegal. Luckily, I also qualify as a STEM student so in a year I’ll be able to apply for an OPT extension.
However, since media companies aren’t really known for shelling out H1B visas for their employees I know I can’t bank on whoever I work for to support me. Instead, I’ll be saving up thousands of dollars for the next two years and building the sort of shameless promotional profile (clicks! likes!) that’ll just maybe convince the US government that I’m as talented and extraordinary as Justin Bieber.