Spring and early summer are generally busy period for recent foreign college graduates as far as employment immigration is concerned. On one hand, foreign college graduates are either applying for their initial term OPT, their 24-month STEM extensions (if they qualify) or their H-1B work visas under the H-1B cap.
Our office fields many questions from prospective or recent college graduates with respect to their OPT and H-1B options. In this article we will focus on a number of questions relating to H-1B and the “cap-gap” provision allowing students with expiring OPT work permits to continue working subject to a timely-filed H-1B petition under the H-1B cap.
Background on the H-1B Cap
The H-1B visa category was created in 1990 through the Nationality and Immigration Act of 1990 (INA). Upon the creation of the H-1B visa type, INA imposed a numerical limitation (“cap”) on the number of H-1Bs that could be issued in each fiscal year. This “cap” (or quota) has varied over the past years but is set to 65,000 per year for the current fiscal year starting on October 1st.
H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa classification used by U.S. employers to hire a foreign national who will be employed temporarily in the U.S. in a specialty occupation (generally one which requires a bachelor’s degree or higher) or as a fashion model. Each year, by law, USCIS can approve up to new 65,000 H-1Bs, thereby allowing many private and employers to hire temporary qualified workers. H-1B non-immigrants who work at (but not necessarily for) universities and non-profit research facilities are excluded from the numerical cap (see below for discussion of cap-exempt employers).
There are certain exceptions to the congressionally-mandated maximum of 65,000 H-1B visas per fiscal year. The first 20,000 H-1B visas issued to alien workers who obtained their master’s degree from a U.S. university are exempt from the 65,000 cap; H-1B visas issued to such U.S. master degree holders subsequent to the first 20,000 are then counted against the overall 65,000 cap. Additionally, the cap does not apply to foreign nationals in the U.S. who are in lawful H-1B status and who are seeking to extend their visa or change employers.
What Is “Cap-Gap”?
The current regulations allow certain students with pending or approved H-1B petitions to remain in F-1 status during the period of time when an F-1 student’s status and work authorization would otherwise expire, and up to the start of their approved H-1B employment period. This is referred to as filling the “cap-gap,” meaning the regulations provide a way of filling the “gap” between the F-1 work permit (OPT) and beginning of the H-1B status on October 1st that might otherwise occur if F-1 status was not extended for qualifying students. For example, a student whose OPT is set to expire on July 15th will have a “gap” between this date and October 1st when a new H-1B cap petition would begin (once approved).
How to Invoke the “Cap-Gap”?
Most importantly, an H-1B cap petition must be timely filed on behalf of an eligible F-1 student. This means that the H-1B petition (indicating change of status rather than consular processing) was filed during the H-1B cap acceptance period, while the student’s authorized duration of status (D/S) admission was still in effect (including any period of time during the academic course of study, any authorized periods of post-completion OPT, and the 60-day departure preparation period, commonly known as the “grace period”).
Once a timely filing has been made, the automatic cap-gap extension will begin and will continue until the H-1B petition adjudication process has been completed. If the student’s H-1B petition is selected under the H-1B cap lottery and approved, the student’s F-1 OPT will be considered extended and will continue through September 30th unless the petition is denied, withdrawn, or revoked. If the student’s H-1B petition is not selected under the H-1B lottery or not approved, the student will have the standard 60-day grace period from the date of the rejection notice or their program or OPT end date, whichever is later, to prepare for and depart the United States.
Students are strongly encouraged to stay in close communication with their petitioning employer during the cap-gap extension period for status updates on the H-1B petition processing.
Is Proof of Cap-Gap Status Necessary?
A student will need to obtain an updated Form I-20 from his or her designated school official (DSO). The Form I-20 is the only document a student will have to show proof of continuing status and OPT, if applicable. The student should go to their DSO with evidence of a timely filed H-1B petition (indicating a request for change of status rather than for consular processing), such as a copy of the petition and a FedEx, UPS, or USPS Express/certified mail receipt. The student’s DSO will issue an interim cap-gap I-20 showing an extension until October 1st. Students whose approved period of OPT already extends beyond October 1st do not need an interim extension.
In some cases, a student’s SEVIS record will not be automatically updated with the cap-gap extension, in error. In this situation, the student’s DSO may need to add an interim cap-gap extension to the student’s SEVIS record or contact the SEVIS Help Desk to have the full cap-gap extension applied to the record.
Are Expired or Expiring OPT EAD Holders Eligible for Cap-Gap?
For a student to have employment authorization during the cap-gap extension, he or she must be in an approved period of post-completion OPT on the eligibility date which is generally the date of filing of the H-1B petition.
Can Students Travel While Under Cap-Gap Extension?
The regulations at 8 CFR 214.2(f)(13) state that a student who has an unexpired Employment Authorization Document (EAD) issued for post-completion OPT and who is otherwise admissible may return to the United States to resume employment after a temporary absence. However, by definition, the EAD of an F-1 student covered under a cap-gap extension is necessarily expired. Consequently, if a student granted a cap-gap extension elects to travel outside the United States during the cap-gap extension period, he or she will not be able to return in F-1 status. The student will need to apply for an H-1B visa at a consular post abroad prior to returning. As the H-1B petition is presumably for an October 1 or later start date, the student should be prepared to adjust his or her travel plans accordingly.
The OPT cap-gap provisions for F-1 international students can be complex and may apply in different ways in different situations. Additionally, the cap-gap rule only applies if there is a timely-filed H-1B petition under the H-1B cap. While we do not yet know how quickly this year’s H-1B cap would be reached, indications of the heavy interest early this year and last year’s historical data suggest for a very short (5-day) H-1B cap filing window. In fact, we urge our clients and readers to assume that the H-1B cap season will last only five days and to aim for April 1 H-1B petition filing.
If you wish to start a new H-1B work visa petition under this year’s quota, if you have any questions or concerns about the OPT cap-gap rule or if our office can be of any help, please contact us as soon as possible. Our attorneys and professionals stand ready to review your case, as part of our free initial consultation, and will help you prepare a strong H-1B application, together with helping you navigate through the OPT cap-gap rules and situations.