Ji Hyun came to the United States from South Korea to pursue her dream of becoming an intensive care unit nurse.
Now, she is one of many international students whose job prospects and legal immigration status are threatened by monthslong processing delays in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services facilities.
Ji Hyun graduated from nursing school in December and secured a job offer to work in the intensive care unit of a Georgia hospital. On Nov. 4, she mailed out an application for Optional Practical Training, a 12-month program that allows F-1 student visa holders to temporarily work in the U.S. in the field in which they studied.
By the time she got a receipt on Feb. 10 confirming USCIS received her application, it was too late. She lost her job offer. Her employer needed to have her approved work authorization by Feb. 8.
“I was following all the rules. I had all the qualifications and I was so ready to work,” said Ji Hyun, who asked not to be fully identified to speak freely while her OPT application is still being processed by the agency.
It’s not clear exactly how many students are affected by the delays, as USCIS has not released numbers. During the 2019 fiscal year, according to agency data, USCIS received 215,282 applications for OPT work authorizations.
Processing delays like the one experienced by Ji Hyun constitute another challenge to the country’s ability to recruit and retain highly educated and skilled students and workers from abroad, who have historically driven economic growth in the U.S.
The processing lags come as the Biden administration and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas seek to reform the immigration system.
“We still send graduates educated in our great universities back to their home countries instead of allowing them to drive innovation here in America,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said Thursday as congressional Democrats unveiled a comprehensive immigration bill backed by President Joe Biden.
By Hannah Miao for CNBC
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