OPT authorization in Minnesota delayed due surge in applications

Vergianti Agustini, freshly graduated from Macalester College, was looking forward to starting a job with the Brookings Institution come summer.

She thought she was in the clear, having submitted paperwork for the federal Optional Practical Training (OPT) program that would allow her to work in the STEM field for three years after graduation. But the months piled on as she waited for United States Citizenship and Immigration to greenlight her application. Unsure when she’d be able to legally work in the U.S., Agustini turned down the job offer.

Students like Agustini from across the country have reported delays in receiving work authorization. Dartmouth College students even petitioned school administration for support.

In a statement to MinnPost, a USCIS spokeswoman attributed the slowdowns to a “surge” in applications, resulting in a “small backlog of cases that are pending beyond the standard 90-day processing time.”


Some universities in Minnesota have told MinnPost that they have seen processing times stretch longer than they’ve experienced before. Minnesota State University, Mankato saw delays “well over” 110 days. Minnesota State University Moorhead heard from about five students about processing exceeding 100 days. Southwest Minnesota State University saw about 45 students reporting delays of 70 days, when in the past approval would come about a month earlier. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities did not provide details but said students have experienced “significant delays.”

School officials echo similar stories: They’re fielding panicked inquiries from students; some of them have even lost job offers, unable to definitively tell employers their start date.

“We’ve had students have job offers rescinded once the employer has waited as long as they could. It’s devastating to the student,” said Jacy Fry, director of the Kearney Center for International Student Services at Mankato State.

The USCIS website says to expect wait times ranging from 4 weeks to 5 months from the Virginia-based Potomac Service Center, which handles all OPT applications.

With her job authorization in limbo, Agustini’s life has been thrown into uncertainty. Even returning home to her village in Bali, Indonesia, would be a gamble, because she fears she wouldn’t be able to get back into the U.S.

“If students are feeling helpless, it’s because there aren’t a lot of avenues open to them to try to move things along,” said Marissa Hill-Dongre, assistant director of the University of Minnesota’s International Student and Scholar Services.

90 days no more

University staff say they help students through the work authorization paperwork, but they can’t do much once it’s in federal hands.

“It’s been frustrating that these young men and women are doing things by the book and the government is failing them,” said Juan Tavares, who at the time of interview was the director of International Student Services at Southwest State.

In order to apply for OPT, international students must also file an I-765, a separate work authorization application that is required for all immigrants seeking employment in the U.S. In addition, graduating seniors can apply no earlier than 90 days before they obtain their degree.

In the past, school officials say that’s how long it’s typically taken for USCIS to get back to the student, sometimes even faster. But that standard appears to have dissolved, both in practice and as an agency goal. In 2017, USCIS dropped its 90-day processing timeline for all employment authorization documents.

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