February 19, 2018
On February 6, 2018, USCIS revised their special instructions on filing "bridge applications" for prospective students applying for a change of status to F-1 or M-1 student.
The prior, 04/05/2017 version (see this version archived by the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine) was the (in)famous guidance that instructed B-1 and B-2 applicants on the need to file a "bridge application" to extend their B status if their F-1 SEVIS record was deferred to a date more than 30 days beyond the expiration of their B status.
The current version of the USCIS guidance has a "last Reviewed/Updated" date of 02/06/2018, and expands this policy to changes of status from any nonimmigrant category to F-1 or M-1, not just change of status from B to F-1 or M-1. This is in line with anecdotal reports that USCIS Service Centers had already begun doing so.
Read the Current Version of USCIS's COS to F-1 or M-1 Guidance
Here is an extract of the pertinent changes:
What if I Have a Gap in Status?
"If your current nonimmigrant status will expire more than 30 days before your F-1 or M-1 program start date and you wish to remain in the United States until your start date, you must find a way to obtain status all the way up to the date that is 30 days before your program start date ("bridge the gap"). For most people, you will need to file a separate Form I-539 to request to extend your current status or change to another nonimmigrant status, in addition to your other Form I-539 application to change to student status. If you do not file this separate request prior to the expiration of your status, USCIS will deny your Form I-539 request to change to F-1 or M-1 status. Please continue to check the USCIS processing times while your Form I-539 change of status request is pending to determine if you need to file a request to extend or change your nonimmigrant status.
- Note that because of processing times, your F-1 or M-1 program start date may be deferred to the following academic term or semester because USCIS did not make a decision on your Form I-539 change of status application before your originally intended F-1 or M-1 program start date. In that instance, you will need to obtain status all the way up to the date which is 30 days before your new program start date. If you had already filed an I-539 to bridge the original gap, you may need to file another I-539 to bridge the new gap.
NAFSA has also prepared a blackline document through Microsoft Word's "compare documents" feature, that compares the language of the prior and current versions of the guidance, showing what's been added, removed, or revised. In the blackline:
- black indicates text that has been unchanged
- blue strike-through indicates text that has been removed
- blue underline indicates text that has been revised or added
NAFSA recommends that assisting students on filing "bridge" applications be done by an experienced immigration lawyer, rather than a DSO.
USCIS now applies its bridge application policy to changes from any nonimmigrant status to F-1 or M-1 student, not just changes from B to F-1 or M-1. This is in line with anecdotal reports that USCIS Service Centers had already begun doing so.
The new guidance now also mentions the possibility of filing a "bridge change of status" application rather than a "bridge extension of stay" application, which could be useful in cases where the applicant is not eligible for a extension of their current status (e.g., an H-4 dependent who will be "aging out" of eligibility for H-4 status, an H-1B employee whose employment has ended, a J-1 exchange visitor whose program has ended, etc.). However, there would be a catch-22 if the applicant is already studying and asks to change to B-2 status, as study is prohibited in B status. Cases like this should be handled by an immigration lawyer.
What about "pipeline" cases (COS from other than B to F-1 or M-1) that were filed on or before February 6, 2018 (the day USCIS updated its guidance)? The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) had reported that the RFEs received after the original B to F guidance came out would usually give the applicant an opportunity to file a “late” extension of stay bridge application under the late filing provisions of 8 CFR 214.1(c)(4). Although we could surmise that USCIS might give pipeline cases the same treatment after this new guidance came out (and accept late EOS bridge applications under 8 CFR 214.1(c)(4) or late COS bridge applications under 8 CFR 248.1(b)), USCIS has not confirmed this. Applicants who receive an RFE stemming from the new guidance should seek the assistance of an immigration lawyer.
Although the USCIS guidance mentions only changes to F-1 or M-1 status, USCIS could conceivably apply their underlying legal rationale to changes to J-1 exchange visitor, when the program start date is amended to avoid automatic system invalidations. Applicants should ask their immigration lawyer whether USCIS might apply this policy to changes of status to J-1 exchange visitor.
An experienced immigration lawyer is best positioned to advise on all aspects of any change of status application, including the timing, type, and number of bridge applications that may have to be filed, exploring alternative immigration strategies such as consular processing and reentry instead of applying for change of status, responding to Requests for Evidence (RFEs), and other matters that relate to the personal immigration status of the student and his or her dependents.
A change of status application is a personal application of the alien, and can have complex impact on the alien's immigration status and eligibility for future immigration benefits. Although college-based advisers need to be aware of the general issues surrounding change of status, applicants needing immigration advice and help planning an immigration strategy should be referred to an experienced immigration attorney.