Murthy Takes Action: UNVA Students Continue to Face Immigration Problems27 Apr 2012
The Murthy Law Firm has recently been contacted by a number of former University of Northern Virginia (UNVA) students facing immigration difficulties. Many of these problems are tied to the students having worked while on Curricular Practical Training (CPT). This issue arises when the former students attempt to obtain new immigration benefits and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews the students’ histories. The USCIS is now questioning whether such students were maintaining proper immigration status during the CPT period and, in some cases, is denying immigration benefits, like extensions of status and changes of status.
Background on UNVA Raid
On July 28, 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the UNVA and initiated action to terminate the school’s certification allowing sponsorship of foreign students (F-1). Prior to this investigation of UNVA, there was the raid of Tri-Valley University in January 2011, where students were even more adversely affected. More on the UNVA raid can be found in our August 1, 2011 NewsBrief, The University of Northern Virginia: Tri-Valley Version 2 (01.Aug.0211). While UNVA and its former students have fared better than TVU, even those who thought their troubles had ended are facing renewed inquiries with threats of denial of their extensions or changes of status.
RFEs on Prior Violations of Status
The requests for evidence (RFEs) received by some former UNVA students are tied to requests for initial Optional Practical Training (OPT), extensions of OPT for those with science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees, as well as requests for extensions or changes of nonimmigrant status. In order to extend or change status, or obtain OPT, an individual must hold an appropriate nonimmigrant status.
The USCIS is challenging eligibility for the requested immigration benefits, claiming that the former UNVA students have prior status violations. Many of the cases involve former students who were authorized by UNVA for CPT within the first year of study.
Regulations regarding CPT allow the designated school official (DSO) to authorize CPT prior to completion of one academic year for graduate students in programs requiring such immediate participation. Under the regulations DSOs can authorize CPT to allow such students to participate in curricular training programs that are integral to the established curricula. The RFEs and, in some cases, denials, dispute that the particular employment engaged in under CPT fell within the requirement of being an “integral part of the established curriculum.”
Request for CPT Cooperative Agreements
Many of the RFEs question the appropriateness of the period of CPT granted to former UNVA students and request proof of the existence of a cooperative agreement between the employer and UNVA. Absent such agreement, the USCIS is likely to find that the employment was not an integral part of the established curriculum, as required. As explained below, this is too restrictive an interpretation and does not comport with CPT regulations.
Cooperative Agreements Not Mandatory
The decision as to whether CPT is appropriate for a particular student is the responsibility of the DSO. As mentioned, the DSO must determine that the training is an integral part of the curriculum. The Student and Exchange Visitor (SEVP) training materials instruct DSOs that, “integral part of an established curriculum” means an opportunity must be required by the curriculum or, if not required, the student must receive credit for the training. Most of the CPT authorized for UNVA students was a part of the internship or practicum for which the students registered.
The USCIS is requiring proof of cooperative agreements when the regulations and guidance reference cooperative agreements as only one manner by which CPT eligibility can be established.
Murthy Law Firm Meeting at Indian Embassy on April 20, 2012
Attorneys from the Murthy Law Firm joined community leaders from concerned organizations supporting the affected students in a meeting at the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. on April 20, 2012. The Indian government was represented by the Indian Ambassador, Honorable Nirupama Rao. We were able to advocate for reasonable treatment of the former UNVA students to the U.S. government representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) International Division representative. The issues discussed included items below.
DSO Should be Responsible (Not the Students)
The Murthy Law Firm’s position in this matter is that the USCIS is interpreting the CPT requirements too restrictively. While foreign nationals hold the ultimate responsibility for maintaining status, they are now being punished for relying on school officials who were authorized to approve CPT benefits. Students can only receive CPT after making a request to the DSO and receiving Form I-20 endorsed by the DSO. Students are often directed by the USCIS to seek guidance on their immigration issues from the DSO.
Lack of Appropriate Safeguards in SEVIS Database
The students’ CPT authorization is registered in the government-operated Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record. CPT is not authorized without the assent of SEVIS. It is unfair, therefore, to shift the responsibility for errors that may have occurred through the DSOs or lack of appropriate safeguards within SEVIS to the students, unfairly punishing them for a purported failure to maintain status.
The UNVA students are caught in a system that is flawed. Such students must rely upon the SEVP certified schools for obtaining and maintaining F-1 status. The CPT I-20s and official government-issued documentation provided UNVA students with the assurance that they were complying with immigration law. The U.S. government itself provided the students with every indication that would make a reasonable person believe that they were acting properly.
Online Class Restriction Not on Form I-20
The same arguments hold true for students whose status is questioned after exceeding the one-online-class-per-semester limit, after a failure of the DSOs to advise them of prohibitions against this practice. The USCIS often takes the position that, by signing Form I-20, students accept all the requirements for maintenance of status listed on the I-20. The form was last revised in 1988, however, and it includes no instructions about distance learning. Therefore, the school and the DSO are the entities primarily in charge of advising students about online class restrictions, in addition to determining CPT eligibility.
Murthy Law Firm Submissions
The Murthy Law Firm attorneys attending the meeting requested ICE and DHS representatives to consider all of the above concerns. Students should not be made into scapegoats for flaws within the larger system. The students caught in the pipeline should be considered in the most positive light based on the circumstances, so that they may be granted any appropriate new immigration benefits. Many of these students received benefits, such as OPT, following completion of their studies at UNVA. They relied upon the issuance of these approvals as a sign that there would be no further questions about their history at UNVA. Their decisions were made accordingly, and should not be under attack at a time which, for many, is well after the fact. We would ask that the mistakes that have been made from all sides be taken into account so that ICE/SEVIS can make the necessary changes to eliminate cracks in the SEVP and F-1 system and avoid similar problems in the future.
The Murthy Law Firm is available to assist students who are facing difficulties in their transition after attending UNVA. We are advocating to USCIS and ICE that both must take into consideration that the students cannot be blamed for flaws in the system established and operated by the government. We will continue our efforts on behalf of these students in seeking the best possible solution to UNVA related problems.
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