The United States has very strict rules regarding the ability of foreign nationals to work in the U.S. International students in valid F-1 status may work on-campus at the school which they are authorized to attend for up to 20 hours per week during the academic year, and full-time during vacation and holiday breaks. Students in valid F-1 status cannot be employed off-campus without obtaining prior written authorization. Working off-campus without the appropriate authorization is considered illegal employment according to federal immigration law and is a potentially deportable offense. USCIS regulations require that all unauthorized employment be reported. So, now more than ever, it's essential for international students to understand the off-campus employment rules that pertain to them.
How is "Employment" Defined?
U.S. federal regulations offer the following definition:
"The term employee means an individual who provides services or labor for an employer for wages or other remuneration." 8 CFR 274a.1(f)
Compensation means something is given to you because you provided a service. It can be a paycheck, a bonus payment, a stipend, or it can be meal vouchers, room and board, or payment of your travel costs. Any of these would be considered to be compensation under immigration regulations. Simply put, if you receive anything for providing a service you are being compensated.
Volunteering is defined as engaging in an activity that anyone (U.S. citizen or citizen of another country) would engage in without expectation of compensation, monetary or otherwise, for the service provided.
Consequences of Illegal Employment
Any employment that is in violation of your F-1 status is a deportable offense if it comes to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. An employer who hires you for a position that does not comply with the limitations set by your employment authorization category can be subject to civil penalties and in some cases, criminal penalties.
Your employer is required to report your earnings to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Internal Revenue Service, and you are required to file an income tax return reporting those earnings and paying any taxes due on them, even if the employment was not authorized. If at some point in the future, you decide to apply for U.S. permanent residency (either through an employment petition, a petition filed by an immediate relative, through the diversity visa lottery, or by marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident), you are required to submit copies of your past U.S. federal income tax returns as part of the application. If previous employment is indicated on your tax returns, the immigration officer can require that you present proof of work authorization for those jobs. Regardless of whether you are applying for permanent residency or some other non-immigrant status (such as H-1B), if previous employment is indicated on your immigration paperwork (such as an endorsement for optional practical training on an I-20, or some other evidence of work authorization) the immigration officer adjudicating the new application may request specific information regarding the previous employment and its applicability to the work authorization you held.
As students, you have worked very hard to achieve a U.S. college degree. Don't risk all the time and money you have invested in that goal. Do not rely on your employer to determine whether your job meets the requirements for your employment authorization. Remember that compliance with federal immigration regulations is your responsibility, and the consequences for non-compliance are punitive.