USCIS finalized its unlawful presence policy for F, J and M nonimmigrants on August 9, 2018. The final policy makes no significant changes from the draft policy of May 10, 2018. As of August 9, 2018, F, J and M nonimmigrants who have failed to maintain nonimmigrant status will start accruing unlawful presence.
Individuals who have accrued more than 180 days of unlawful presence during a single stay, and then depart, may be subject to 3-year or 10-year bars to admission, depending on how much unlawful presence they accrued before they departed the United States. See INA § 212(a)(9)(B)(i)(I) & (II). Individuals who have accrued a total period of more than one year of unlawful presence, whether in a single stay or during multiple stays in the United States, and who then reenter or attempt to reenter the United States without being admitted or paroled, are permanently inadmissible.
Prior to August 9, 2018, foreign students (F nonimmigrants) and exchange visitors (J nonimmigrants) who were admitted for, or present in the United States in, Duration of Status started accruing unlawful presence on the day after USCIS formally found a nonimmigrant status violation while adjudicating a request for another immigrant benefit or on the day after an immigration judge ordered the applicant excluded, deported, or removed (whether or not the decision was appealed), whichever came first. F and J nonimmigrants, and foreign vocational students (M nonimmigrants), who were admitted until a specific date certain accrued unlawful presence on the day after their Form I-94 expired, on the day after USCIS formally found a nonimmigrant status violation while adjudicating a request for another immigration benefit, or on the day after an immigration judge ordered the applicant excluded, deported, or removed (whether or not the decision was appealed), whichever came first.
This will no longer be the case. Under the new policy effective August 9, 2018, any status violation will start the accrual of unlawful presence. The nonimmigrant will not be provided with any formal notice of a status violation, and any violation from the past that has been discovered would have already started the accrual of unlawful presence. According to the policy memo, the USCIS officer should consider information relating to the alien’s immigration history, including but not limited to:
- Information contained in the systems available to USCIS;
- Information contained in the alien’s record; and
- Information obtained through a Request for Evidence (RFE) or Notice of Intent to Deny, if any.
USCIS also noted that the Department of State (DOS) administers the J-1 exchange visitor program, to include reinstatement requests. If DOS approves the reinstatement application of a J nonimmigrant, “the individual will generally not accrue unlawful presence from the time the J nonimmigrant fell out of status from the time he or she was reinstated,” USCIS said.
Unfortunately, most students may never know that they fell out of status until it is too late and they may never have an opportunity to file for reinstatement. Students will also likely be found to have violated status if they pursued practical training that is perceived as not being consistent with the regulations.
A student can also be found to have violated status due to an ambiguity in the rules providing for the maximum amount of time in practical training. 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(10) provides that a student may be authorized a total of 12 months of practical training, and becomes eligible for another 12 months when the student changes to a higher educational level.
Upon receiving such an RFE, it is important to submit evidence to overcome USCIS’s doubts. Still, it may be difficult to challenge USCIS’s interpretation that the regulation at 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(10) only authorizes a total of 12 months of practical training, even though 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(10)(i) appears to suggest that CPT can be granted in excess of 1 year. It may also be difficult to demonstrate to the USCIS’s satisfaction that the CPT was an integral part of an established curriculum. If the request for a change of status is not granted, the F-1 nonimmigrant would have started accruing unlawful presence as of August 9, 2018. In the event of the student departing later than February 5, 2020, he or she will be barred from entering the US for 3 years. After February 5, 2020, there will be no such grace period, and prior status violations that were in excess of 180 days will result in 3 year or 10 year bars to reentry upon the student departing the United States. The student may not be able to change or adjust status in the United States, and thus will be caught in a federally imposed Catch-22 situation.
The new policy blurs the difference between being out of status and unlawfully present, and thus violates INA § 212(a)(9)(B)(ii). If the USCIS wanted to so radically change its prior interpretation of unlawful presence for F, J and M nonimmigrants, it ought to have promulgated a rule through a more formal notice and comment under the Administrative Procedure Act. Finally, the policy violates the due process rights of these nonimmigrants as it imposes draconian penalties, 3 and 10 year bars, for status violations for which they never received formal warning and notice. All these are ripe grounds, among many others, for a successful challenge to this flawed policy in federal court!