Fears for future of J1 programme as sponsors hit with €500 levy
THE future of the J1 visa that allows thousands of Irish students to travel and work in the United States each summer is under threat in the new immigration reform bill going through the US senate.
New restrictions that would hit students going to the US next year effectively mean they will not be able to get a visa unless their future employer or other US sponsor agrees to pay a new €500 fee.
A provision in the bill adds the €500 fee but says it can't be paid by the participating students and it is unclear how it would be paid or who would pay it.
Last year, 7,200 Irish students were given a J1, up from 6,507 in 2011 and 5,012 in 2010.
An employer is unlikely to want to fork out the fee and most students don't have work before they go to the US, nor are they required to under the programme.
There is also a provision related to contractors that would apply to J1 sponsors which forbids the collecting of any fees.
"While there's no direct repeal of the J1 summer work visa programme, there are restrictions on who can pay, and since participants can't pay fees, it's unclear how it would be financed," said former Congressman Bruce Morrison, an expert on immigration law, who secured the so-called "Morrison visas" for thousands of Irish in the US in the 1990s.
"As it's currently written, it would have a very dramatic negative effect on the ability of this programme to work. At the very least it would have to be a pre-arranged employment and the employer would have to be willing to pay the amount."
Though the bill has been around for some months, no one apparently saw this coming. Unless the provisions are amended, they could effectively scupper the programme. The final version was hammered out last month. It has been with the Senate Judiciary Committee for weeks and is expected to go to the full senate soon.
Some Irish-Americans are surprised that the provisions ever made their way into the 800-page bill and are asking if those monitoring its progress in Washington or Dublin were "asleep at the wheel" – though the programme is not restricted to Ireland and many other countries benefit from it also.
Making the summer programme almost impossible to implement is exactly the aim of its opponents, both on the left and right, in the US.
Labour unions don't want to see foreigners taking American jobs.
"It hasn't been thought through. But this is just the beginning of a process. Things could be changed. But as it is currently written, it would be a wholesale change in the way summer J1s are done," said Mr Morrison.