March 9th, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an copy of the final rule pertaining to optional practical training (OPT) for certain students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The official version of the final rule is slotted to be published in the Federal Register on March 11th, 2016. The new rule will permit employers to retain the talented international students who rely upon the F-1 nonimmigrant student visa for a longer period. USCIS will begin accepting applications under this provision on May 10th, 2016. Prior to that date, USCIS will continue to accept applications under the existing 17-month STEM OPT procedure.

What Employers and Extended STEM Student Hopefuls Need to Know About the New Rule . . .

This new and long-awaited STEM regulation includes the following major provisions:
• It increases the STEM OPT extension period from 17 months to 24 months (for a total STEM OPT period of 36 months);
• It automatically extends work authorization if students properly file a STEM OPT extension;
• It permits students currently approved for a 17-month extension of work authorization to apply for the balance of the new 24-month extension if they meet certain requirements pertaining to timing of their applications;
• It allows students enrolled in a subsequent STEM degree program at a higher level to become eligible for an additional 24-month STEM OPT extension upon completion of the subsequent, higher level program;
• It permits eligibility for the 24-month STEM OPT extension under the new rule to be based on a previously obtained STEM degree (with certain limitations);
• It provides new and clearer definitions of STEM fields of study within the Department of Education categories;
• It requires students and employers to submit a formal training plan (i.e., learning objectives for the student) and certain employer attestations to protect the U.S. workforce-both of which the student and employer must submit on Form I-983 Training Plan for STEM OPT Students (to be promulgated by USCIS);
• It adds new reporting requirements for students and their employers, including confirmation of the student’s physical residence and employment status every six months, regular evaluations regarding the student’s progress with the training plan, and immediate notification regarding termination of the student’s employment; and
• It provides for DHS site visits to employer locations in which STEM OPT students are employed. The DHS will generally give advance notice of such visits but may also conduct an unannounced visit if triggered by a complaint or other evidence of violation of the regulations.

In addition, the updated rule retains other original provisions from the 2008 interim rule, such as:
• E-Verify and reporting requirements for STEM OPT employers; and
• a cap-gap extension for F-1 nonimmigrants with timely filed H-1B cap-subject petitions requesting change of status.

New Rule Requires Employers to be Vigilant and To Establish Mentoring and Training Programs for OPT Participants.

One of the most notable changes in the new rule is the requirement for employer implementation of formal mentoring and training programs for OPT participants. Employers will be required to create a mentoring and training plan, which is signed and certified by the employer (and the student) as a prerequisite to obtaining the STEM extension period; this plan is to be submitted on USCIS’ new Form I-983 (the “Plan”). The Plan must describe the field in which the employee will receive training; list the name, title, and contact information of a designated supervisor within the company; and describe in detail the following:
• how the proposed work assignment is directly related to the student’s degree;
• a list of the goals and objectives of the program, including a detailed explanation on how th