Summary of top issues reported to NAFSA IssueNet from from February 2020 to May 2020

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many issues from this IssueNet Quarterly Summary are related to updates from various agencies. Please check NAFSA's COVID-19 page for the most up-to-date information.

Exchange Visitor Issues

  • EVP has provided several email communications to J-1 program sponsors regarding repatriation of J-1 Exchange Visitors during COVID. NAFSA's page on EVP COVID-19 policy tracks updates. EVP last updated its FAQs on June 11, 2020.
  • The Department of State maintains a website devoted to travel advisories and country-specific information so that outgoing and incoming travelers can understand the situation in the home country and the ability to travel back, or to enter the U.S. from that country.
  • DOS ECA issued this FAQ for A/ROs of J programs, regarding Form DS-2019:

    "ELECTRONIC FORMS DS-2019: Will the Department of State (Department) allow exchange visitors to use electronic copies of Forms DS-2019 for formal processing (e.g., visa interview, admission to the United States at the port of entry)?

    No. As noted during the conference call with sponsors on March 27th, sponsors are advised to print Forms DS-2019, fully execute them with original signatures in blue ink, and transmit them in accordance with regulatory requirements if exchange visitors need Forms DS-2019 for formal processing.

    However, the Department continues to permit sponsors to email copies of fully executed Forms DS-2019 to exchange visitors to reflect updated information in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (e.g., extended program end date, change of address). Sponsors must advise exchange visitors that electronic versions of Form-DS-2019 cannot be used for formal processing. Exchange visitors anticipating formal processing requirements should request their sponsors send them original Forms DS-2019."

Travel Issues

  • On March 20, 2020 the Department of State suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates. There is no central resource page on the DOS website to notify of resumption of visa services at U.S. embassies and consulates.  Travelers need to search specific embassy/consulate websites for information: https://www.usembassy.gov/  
  • DOS on the March 27, 2020 Teleconference answered questions related to resumption of visa services for J-1 Exchange Visitors and posted answers.
  • Multiple Presidential Proclamations were announced since the start of the pandemic suspending entry of certain classes of nonimmigrants and immigrants to the United States. Detailed information is posted on the NAFSA COVID-19 Visa and Entry page.
  • There were continued reports of admissibility issues relating to visa revocation and device searches at CBP POE, specifically at LAX, SFO, and Logan in the first few months of 2020. These issues were not related to the travel bans or the COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Incorrect actions are still taking place in secondary inspections in various airports when students are entering the US (e.g., a student with I-20 was taken to secondary inspection and wrongly issued ESTA waiver (and charged for the form I-193) instead of receiving I-515A.

DOL

  • OFLC has issued four rounds of FAQs addressing questions related to H-1B LCA obligations with remote work locations, PERM, H-2A, and other issues.  Round 1 (March 20, 2020); Round 2 (April 1, 2020); Round 3 (April 9, 2020); Round 4 (June 3, 2020).
  • OFLC announced on March 24, 2020 that it would issue electronic PERM labor certifications from March 25, 2020 to June 30, 2020.
  • On May 20, 2020, OFLC confirmed that the requirements set forth under 20 CFR 656.10(d)(1)(ii) relating to Notice of Filing (NOF) posting for PERM processing remain the same.
  • NAFSA's page on DOL COVID-19 policy tracks updates.

USCIS

  • Concerns regarding impact of COVID-19 on Optional Practical Training, including many questions left unanswered in SEVP COVID-19 Guidance Documents:
    • No statement if students may apply for OPT from abroad.
    • No determination made on flexibility for exceeding the regulatory limits for unemployment of 90 days for Post-Completion OPT and 150 days for STEM OPT.
    • In their 4/30/20 FAQ update, SEVP stated, "For the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, SEVP considers students who are working in their OPT opportunities fewer than 20 hours a week as engaged in OPT." The wording of the FAQ seems to cover only reduction in employment hours, not furlough or job loss where the student works 0 hours.
  • Resolved reports of unusual OPT application rejections or handling by USCIS, including:
    • OPT applications rejected inaccurately on the basis of being filed using an outdated version of the I-765 (resolved and sporadic occurrences).
    • Erroneous biometrics appointments for OPT applicants following a group of applications sent to the National Benefits Center rather than the Potomac Service Center (resolved).
    • Both issues have been/are currently being worked on through liaison work between the ISS RP Regbud subcommittee and the CIS Ombudsman from advisors' submissions to IssueNet.
  • Ongoing reports of OPT EAD errors, such as name and start and end dates inaccuracies resulting in more than 14 months of eligibility. These cases have been submitted to the CIS Ombudsman via ISS RP Regbuds, using information from IssueNet and Network NAFSA submissions.
  • USCIS temporary changes due to COVID-19:
    • On March 18, USCIS temporarily suspended in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices, and application support centers. Beginning June 4, certain USCIS field offices and asylum offices have resumed non-emergency face-to-face services to the public. Application Support Centers will resume services later.
    • COVID-19-related health protocols caused delays in H-1B data entry and receipt notice generation, which in turn will delay the automatic cap-gap functionality in SEVIS, which is based on USCIS's CLAIMS system.
    • As outlined in a recent NAFSA Government Connection, USCIS introduced various measures intended to provide applicants and stakeholders some relief and flexibility pertaining to certain business practices such as using electronically reproduced original signatures, responding to RFEs, processing I-9s, completing E-Verify actions, etc.

SEVP issues

Issuance of Forms I-20

Due to COVID-19, DSOs may electronically send Forms I-20 to student email addresses listed in SEVIS. An SEVP FAQ outlined the following acceptable methods for DSOs to sign and send the Form I-20:

  1. Email a scanned version of the physically signed Form I-20;
  2. Email a digitally signed Form I-20 using electronic signature software; or
  3. Email a digitally signed Form I-20 that contains a digitally reproduced copy of a physical signature.
  • No guidance on if electronic signatures are acceptable from students.
  • SEVP cofirmed that Forms I-20 issued electronically or with electronic signatures issued during the COVID-19 emergency will remain valid "until students have a need for an updated Form I-20," and that "An electronic or digital travel signature will be valid for the same duration as an ink signature (12 months for F students and six months for M students)."
  • SEVP confirmed in an FAQ that "SEVP coordinated with both the Department of State and CBP regarding the policy to allow electronic issuance and signing of Forms I-20 for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency. Both agencies are in support of this action. SEVP continues to respond to any issues raised or questions from both agencies about this policy and will provide clarity as needed."

Other SEVP issues

  • Concerns about CPT/OPT requirements for short graduate programs that span 9 months in length (and students would be remote for Fall) and if student's would still be eligible to apply for work authorization benefits.
  • Cap-Gap Extension: Remember that an H-1B Registration Selection Notice does not qualify a student for Cap-Gap Extension. An F-1 student can only receive Cap-Gap extension after their cap-subject employer files with USCIS an H-1B petition requesting an October 1 start date and change of status. This change is reflected in SEVIS and should the student be eligible, their records should automatically reflect this update once USCIS receipts the H-1B Petition for the student. If information is missing, a DSO should plan to contact the SEVIS Response Center.