The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published a proposed rule in the November 21, 2013 Federal Register that would allow spouses and children of international students on F-1 and M-1 visas to study part time. The intention is to allow greater flexibility and increased opportunities for F-2 and M-2 dependent spouses and children. Since dependent children are currently allowed to enroll full-time in elementary and secondary school, the expectation is that dependent spouses would most likely take advantage of this new opportunity.

As proposed, F-2 and M-2 dependent spouses and children would be allowed to enroll in a course of study at an SEVP-approved school for less than full-time study, even if the study ultimately culminates in a degree, certificate, or other credential. The DHS division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). SEVP serves as the main link between approved U.S. schools and the U.S. government.

The proposed rule does not allow for work authorization for F-2 or M-2 dependents, even if required by an academic program, nor is there a provision for post-graduation work authorization for F-2 or M-2 dependents. Additionally, the proposed rule would not impose record keeping on school officials beyond their current responsibilities. In the discussion of the rule, DHS recommends that F and M nonimmigrants retain their own complete academic records in order to facilitate processing of future applications for U.S. immigration benefits.

Under current immigration rules, post-secondary study is limited to that of "avocational or recreational" in nature (pursuit of a hobby or other occasional, casual or recreational study). F-2 and M-2 children are allowed to enroll full-time in elementary or secondary education. The new rule would still allow for full-time study of avocational or recreational nature. However, the ability to enroll part-time at an SEVP-approved school and to ultimately obtain a degree, certificate or other credential, is a major change in current rules and will be a great benefit to spouses and children in F-2 status. In the announcement from ICE, SEVP Director Louis Farrell specifically noted that allowing such study and education opportunities for spouses and children will provide even more incentives for F-1 students to study in the United States.

It has only been since 2002 that studying by F-2 and M-2 dependents has been limited. Until 2002, F-2 and M-2 dependents had no limitations on the amount or type of studies they could undertake.

Please note that this is a proposed rule and does not become a final rule until administrative rulemaking has been completed by DHS. DHS will accept comments on this proposed rule until January 21, 2014.Therefore, until the comment period has concluded and any revisions are complete and published as a final rule, F-2 and M-2 dependents must abide by the current rule which limits post-secondary study to avocational or recreational studies only. We anticipate the final rule to be published in 2014. We will provide further legal updates as more information is released about this DHS proposed rule.