Previously I mentioned the change in my academic status when I finally defended my doctoral dissertation. I will officially graduate in August. In the meantime, I had been furiously seeking a full-time position post-graduation and was offered a research position in a research institute in College Station. But as with all international students, I was first required to get approved for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period during which I could work full-time and transfer from being a student to a professional. Although I hadn’t graduated, doctoral students can begin work provided they have completed their coursework and have set a defense date for their dissertation. Having defended in the first week of May, I was all set to begin work around mid-May. But then nothing ever works out that smoothly for me.
I applied for my EAD (Employment Authorization Document) or OPT in the last week of March and my application was received by USCIS on March 30th. The official time to get your card is 90 days although almost no one takes that long. I had received my EAD after my M.S. in 35 days and I expected it to take as long if not sooner considering USCIS had tripled their fees. So I informed my employer that I would be able to begin in mid-May which would be about 45 days from my application date. But that didn’t happen.
I still wasn’t too tensed up since my employer did not seem in any particular hurry but as day 75 approached and passed, I began to panic. We had already signed a rental lease for a new home and would be moving soon. We were dipping into our savings now because essentially I had been out of work since mid-May when my I-20 expired so I was no longer eligible to be a graduate research assistant, a job that earned me my livelihood through my Ph.D days. And to complicate things further, if the card was approved and sent after we moved, it would be returned and the wait would be prolonged for an indefinite time. The International Office at Texas A&M provided little assistance or context in terms of other students statuses. The only response they had was that we can step in only after the 90th day, when the deadline from USCIS lapses; no mention of what they would do or whether they could expedite the process in any way.
We decided to take matters into our own hands. Ash and I scrounged around various immigration message boards and forums for possible solutions. We found that a particular batch of applications, those between March 26th and 30th had been interminably delayed. Those who had applied before and after that period seemed to have gotten their cards with 45-50 days. In fact, another desi student who was also offered a job by my employer and he applied for his OPT in mid-May and got it approved within a month. In fact, the USCIS status update website couldn’t even find my application and I had to call customer service to stop freaking out. In fact, even calling the customer service phones is slightly tricky. Forget listening to the options, simply call 1-800-375-5283 and hit 1-2-3 as soon as you get the welcome message. That takes you straight to a human. The CS rep. confirmed that my application was in the system although pending and admitted that their website was seriously backed up. That explanation proved to be of little consolation since people who had applied much later than me could see their case status online.
The two websites that proved to be of immeasurable help were:
The first website, Track It, is a crowdsourced tracker for all immigration-related applications like I-485, I-140, H1-B, N-400, and of course EADs, OPT or otherwise. It helps you track the average times for other applicants and processing times of various service centers. Just as my luck would have it, the generally fast Texas Service Center proved to be really tardy this year. It also eases your tension a little by helping you share your frustrations and concerns with other people in the same boat, no pun intended to Cubans. It helps you get an idea of the various stages of the application process e.g. how many days does it take to get your card in hand after it has been approved?
The process if your application passes the 90-day deadline is extremely hazy with conflicting reports in the forums. One person suggested waiting as long as you can and calling USCIS every week pestering them to expedite your application. Another suggested, taking an InfoPass appointment to the local USCIS office and making an in-person request. People had tried both methods with similar results so it is pretty random. As my 90th day approached, I did take an InfoPass appointment in the San Antonio office which was the recommended office for my zip code although the one is Houston was much closer.
On my 79th day I called USCIS and asked them to expedite my application. Upon asked why, I told them that I have a job offer and wanted to start ASAP. The International Office at TAMU insists that such a request makes no difference and sending your offer letter with your application doesn’t help although in certain cases according to forum members, it has. Also, since I was moving, I called USCIS again on the 84th day to change my address. International offices in almost all universities scare you by asking you not to move during your OPT application since it will delay your process but in my experience, it is all bunkum. But you have to change your address before your application is approved otherwise your card is sent to the original address (nope, USPS does not forward your mail since the letter comes with a ‘Return Service Requested’ stamp). In my case, I was lucky to have submitted my change of address in the nick of time since it takes 2 days for the change to percolate from the National Center to Regional Centers (don’t ask why!). Attribute it either to my expedite request or my address change, the case status website suddenly started showing my application although still pending.
Then one evening of the 87th day, I got an email notification saying, that my application was approved and card production was ordered. Hallelujah! I have never experienced a bigger sense of relief and it was approved on the day after the address change had supposedly propagated to the Texas service center which was good because I was going to move the next day. My employers were equally relieved and had even prepared a long letter that I planned to overnight to USCIS requesting expediting my application and citing potential financial losses for them. Thankfully, I didn’t need it. The following week I received another email notification that my card has been mailed and I received it the next day…at my new address.
Thus concluded my ordeal at an otherwise mundane immigration procedure that is generally smooth for most. Coincidentally, my application was approved on the day Obama gave a speech promising changes at the USCIS where he promised increased funding for quickening the application processes for legal immigrants. But honestly, I don’t know what worked, the expedite request, the address change, or heck, even Obama’s speech; somehow my application was retrieved a few days before the deadline and approved post-haste. With all attention focused on illegal immigration, legal immigrants often get a raw deal and being a non-voting group, we have effectively no control over our fate and no way for government bureaucracy to be help accountable. We have no choice but to be patient and rest our fates at the mercy of the already-burdened bureaucracy. Strangely, I have never heard of an OPT being declined which begs the question that why do we need it in the first place much less take three months to process and if, like the I-20, it can be generated by the university itself.
Anyway, this rant turned out to be longer than I expected but I wanted to vent my frustrations and perhaps, will help a random Googler understand he or she is not alone in the frustrating wait for the EAD.
PS. I received a notification in the snail mail a week after I received my card that my request to expedite was being considered and I would hear about it in 14-20 days. And it was forwarded from my old address. So much for being consistent and reliable. Sigh!
Update 1: Surprisingly, I got my H1-B petition approved in just over a week.
Update 2: My second H1-B petition took just under two months, about average time, but since I was eligible to work as soon as USCIS received my petition, it wasn’t much of a problem.