Regulations allow the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to suspend or alter rules regarding duration of status, full course of study, and employment eligibility, for specific groups of F-1 students from parts of the world that are experiencing emergent circumstances. This collection of benefits is known as "special student relief" (SSR).

The benefits can be understood as a "package" consisting of on- or off-campus work authorization and authorization to reduce one's course load. The reduced course load benefit is only available to students who acquire work authorization through the notice, and is not available separately. The regulatory provisions are generic, and are activated only when DHS makes a finding of emergent circumstances, and publishes a notice in the Federal Register to define the specifics of what is to be suspended, and for whom, and the procedures for how to apply for any benefits that result from the suspension. SSR benefits do not begin for an individual student until the procedures described in the notices have been properly completed and granted.

Current Special Student Relief Programs

Burma/Myanmar. Effective May 25, 2021 until November 25, 2022. Federal Register notice at 86 FR 28128 (May 25, 2021). To be eligible, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Burma (Myanmar), regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on May 25, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship "as a direct result of the current crisis in Burma"

Haiti. On August 3, 2021, DHS will publish an SSR notice for Haitian students, in the Federal Register. An advance public inspection version of the notice is now available. The notice will be effective from August 3, 2021 through February 3, 2023. On July 22, 2021, NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Esther D. Brimmer, DPhil, had asked SEVP to facilitate a grant of Special Student Relief (SSR) to F-1 students from Haiti. Read NAFSA's letter. To be eligible under the forthcoming notice, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Haiti, regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on August 3, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship "as a direct result of the current crisis in Haiti"

Somalia. Note the future effective date! Benefits under the Somalia notice are not available before the effective date. DHS/ICE established SSR for Somali F-1 students in a Federal Register notice published at 86 FR 38739 (July 22, 2021), but effective September 18, 2021 through March 17, 2023. To be eligible, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Somalia, regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on September 18, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship "as a direct result of the current crisis in Somalia"

Syria. Effective April 22, 2021 until September 30, 2022. Federal Register notice at 86 FR 21333 (April 22, 2021). To be eligible, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Syria, regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on April 22, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship as a direct result of the ongoing civil unrest in Syria since March 2011

Venezuela. Effective April 22, 2021 until September 9, 2022. Federal Register notice at 86 FR 21328 (April 22, 2021). To be eligible, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Venezuela, regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on April 22, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship as a direct result of the current humanitarian crisis in Venezuela

Yemen. Note the future effective date! Benefits under the Yemen notice are not available before the effective date. Effective September 4, 2021 until March 3, 2023. Federal Register notice at 86 FR 36288 (July 9, 2021). To be eligible once the notice is effective, an F-1 student must:

  • Be a citizen of Yemen, regardless of country of birth;
  • Have been lawfully present in the United States in F-1 nonimmigrant status on September 4, 2021;
  • Be currently maintaining F-1 nonimmigrant status;
  • Be enrolled in an SEVP-certified academic institution; and
  • Be experiencing severe economic hardship as a direct result of the current crisis in Yemen

Essential Special Student Relief Concepts

This primer on essential concepts of special student relief is an extract of content in the NAFSA Adviser's Manual 360.


Basics

In 1998, the F-1 regulations were changed to include special student relief (SSR) provisions, which are activated by a specific notice published in the Federal Register. At its core, special student relief is best understood as a suspension of certain rules regarding F-1 employment authorization and full course of study, rather than as separate, independent benefits. [63 Fed. Reg. 31872 (June 10, 1998)]

A separate SSR suspension notice in the Federal Register "activates" these regulatory provisions, and defines the specifics of what rules are to be suspended, for whom, and for how long. The notice also sets forth the procedures for applying for any benefits that result from the suspension. Since SSR benefits are firmly grounded in the F-1 student regulations, you should examine the underlying SSR regulatory provisions to better understand how an SSR Federal Register notice works to "suspend" some or all of the standard regulatory requirements governing:

General Process and Responsibilities

The benefits can be understood as a "package" consisting of on- or off-campus work authorization and authorization to reduce one's course load. The reduced course load benefit is only available to students who acquire work authorization through the notice, and is not available separately. Basic general process and responsibilities are shared by all SSR notices. Generally:

  • DSO makes a determination that the student qualifies under the relevant notice for SSR, i.e.:
    • has the required citizenship,
    • is enrolled for a full course of study and is in good standing at an SEVP-certified school in "private kindergarten through grade 12, public school grades 9 through 12, and undergraduate and graduate education," 
    • is maintaining valid F-1 status,
    • was in the U.S. in F-1 status on the date specified in the SSR notice
    • is "experiencing severe economic hardship as a direct result of" the crisis mentioned in the relevant notice, i.e.:
      • employment is necessary to avoid severe economic hardship; and (as relevant)
      • The hardship "is a direct result of" the situation specified in the SSR notice.
  • If the student already has on-campus employment or an EAD based on severe economic difficulty or TPS, DSO updates the student's SEVIS record in the Remarks section with the verbatim statement specified in the notice, and there's no need to apply for a separate EAD.
    • Note: The interaction between SSR and concurrent non-student benefits like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) can be quite complicated. Students eligible for both TPS and SSR should thoroughly discuss their options with an experienced immigration lawyer.
  • If the student needs to apply for an off-campus EAD, DSO updates the student's SEVIS record in the Remarks section with the verbatim statement specified in the notice, student files the I-765 and the I-20 with SSR remark with USCIS as per the notice, and student waits for EAD in order to begin work and reduce course load.

The 2021 notices state that they apply "to F-1 nonimmigrant students engaged in private kindergarten through grade 12, public school grades 9 through 12, and undergraduate and graduate education." It unclear from that language to what extent students engaged in English language studies who are pursuing a full course of study under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(C) or (D) would benefit from SSR.

SSR Regulations Relating to Employment

8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(i), the on-campus employment provision of the F-1 regulations, contains the following SSR language:

… Employment authorized under this paragraph must not exceed 20 hours a week while school is in session, unless the Commissioner suspends the applicability of this limitation due to emergent circumstances, as determined by the Commissioner, by means of notice in the Federal Register, the student demonstrates to the DSO that the employment is necessary to avoid severe economic hardship resulting from the emergent circumstances, and the DSO notates the Form I-20 in accordance with the Federal Register document….

8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(ii)(A), the off-campus employment provision of the F-1 regulations, contains the following SSR language:

(A) General. An F-1 student may be authorized to work off-campus on a part-time basis in accordance with paragraph (f)(9)(ii)(B) or (C) of this section after having been in F-1 status for one full academic year provided that the student is in good academic standing as determined by the DSO. Part-time off-campus employment authorized under this section is limited to no more than twenty hours a week when school is in session. A student who is granted off-campus employment authorization may work full-time during holidays or school vacation. The employment authorization is automatically terminated whenever the student fails to maintain status. In emergent circumstances as determined by the Commissioner, the Commissioner may suspend the applicability of any or all of the requirements of paragraph (f)(9)(ii) of this section by notice in the Federal Register.

Notes on the above two provisions

Special student relief employment benefits are established only in relation to on-campus employment under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(i) and off-campus employment authorization under 8 CFR 14.2(f)(9)(ii). SSR employment benefits do not extend to any kind of practical training, which is authorized under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10), or to international organization work authorization, which is authorized under 8 CFR 14.2(f)(9)(iii).

The off-campus SSR employment provision incorporates by reference 8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(ii)(C), relating to off-campus employment authorization for severe unforeseen economic hardship. The other provision cited in this paragraph, 8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(ii)(B), relates to the now-defunct employer-attestation provision.

SSR Regulations Relating to Duration of Status and Full Course of Study

8 CFR 14.2(f)(5)(v): duration of status

(v) Emergent circumstances as determined by the Commissioner. Where the Commissioner has suspended the applicability of any or all of the requirements for on-campus or off-campus employment authorization for specified students pursuant to paragraphs (f)(9)(i) or (f)(9)(ii) of this section by notice in the Federal Register, an affected student who needs to reduce his or her full course of study as a result of accepting employment authorized by such notice in the Federal Register will be considered to be in status during the authorized employment, subject to any other conditions specified in the notice, provided that, for the duration of the authorized employment, the student is registered for the number of semester or quarter hours of instruction per academic term specified in the notice, which in no event shall be less than 6 semester or quarter hours of instruction per academic term if the student is at the undergraduate level or less than 3 semester or quarter hours of instruction per academic term if the student is at the graduate level, and is continuing to make progress toward completing the course of study.

8 CFR 14.2(f)(6)(i)(F): full course of study

(F) Notwithstanding paragraphs (f)(6)(i)(A) and (f)(6)(i)(B) of this section, an alien who has been granted employment authorization pursuant to the terms of a document issued by the Commissioner under paragraphs (f)(9)(i) or (f)(9)(ii) of this section and published in the Federal Register shall be deemed to be engaged in a "full course of study" if he or she remains registered for no less than the number of semester or quarter hours of instruction per academic term specified by the Commissioner in the notice for the validity period of such employment authorization.

Notes on the above two provisions

These two provisions establish that students who have been granted SSR on-campus employment authorization under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(i) or SSR off-campus employment authorization under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(ii) will be considered to be pursuing a full course of study and maintaining duration of status as long as they are registered for the minimum number of credit hours specified in the special student relief suspension notice, which by regulation can be no fewer that 6 semester or quarter hours of instruction at the undergraduate level or 3 semester or quarter hours of instruction at the graduate level. These provisions establish two important regulatory limits on the SSR reduced courseload benefit:

(C) Study in a postsecondary language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other non-vocational program at a school which confers upon its graduates recognized associate or other degrees or has established that its credits have been and are accepted unconditionally by at least three institutions of higher learning which are either: (1) A school (or school system) owned and operated as a public educational institution by the United States or a State or political subdivision thereof; or (2) a school accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body; and which has been certified by a designated school official to consist of at least twelve clock hours of instruction a week, or its equivalent as determined by the district director in the school approval process;

(D) Study in any other language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other nonvocational training program, certified by a designated school official to consist of at least eighteen clock hours of attendance a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of classroom instruction, or to consist of at least twenty-two clock hours a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of laboratory work; or

(E) Study in a curriculum at an approved private elementary or middle school or public or private academic high school which is certified by a designated school official to consist of class attendance for not less than the minimum number of hours a week prescribed by the school for normal progress toward graduation.

First, the SSR reduced course load benefit is only available to a student who "has been granted employment authorization pursuant to the terms of" an SSR notice of suspension published in the Federal Register. And so these two benefits are linked, as a "package;" the basis for reducing course load is the need to work, and so you can't just receive a reduced course load without first getting the employment authorization.

Second, the SSR reduced course load benefit only applies to students whose "full course of study" requirements are governed by 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(A) ["Postgraduate study or postdoctoral study at a college or university, or undergraduate or postgraduate study at a conservatory or religious seminary"] or 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(B) ["undergraduate study at a college or university"]. That would seem to exclude students from the reduced course load benefit if their full course of study requirements stem from paragraphs (C) through (E) of that section, namely:

ESL students. Although the Student and Exchange Visitor Program's (SEVP) June 16, 2011 Broadcast Message 1106-01A clarified that F-1 Libyan students who attend English as a Second Language (ESL) programs were eligible for special student relief under the Libya notice, that guidance applied to the Libyan Special Student Relief notice only. The 2021 notices state that they apply "to F-1 nonimmigrant students engaged in private kindergarten through grade 12, public school grades 9 through 12, and undergraduate and graduate education." That language would seem to exclude students engaged in English language studies who are pursuing a full course of study under 8 CFR 214.2(f)(6)(i)(C) or (D).

In its suspension notices granting Special Student Relief, DHS has made clear that the existence of the SSR reduced course load benefit does not mean that a school is legally obliged to allow a student to take a reduced course load "if the reduction would not meet the school's minimum course load requirement for continued enrollment." However, if a school disallows reduced course load on this basis its "minimum course load requirement for enrollment "must be established in a publicly available document (e.g. catalog, Web site, or operating procedure), and it must be a standard applicable to all students (U.S. citizens and foreign students) enrolled at the school."

In its 2021 SSR notices DHS also notes: "DHS also considers students who engage in online coursework pursuant to ICE coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) guidance for nonimmigrant students to be in compliance with regulations while such guidance remains in effect."

Past Special Student Relief Notices That Have Expired