Carl O'Brien, irishtimes.com
Students seeking to travel to the US on J-1 work visa will be obliged to find jobs before they travel under changes announced on Thursday.
Irish officials - who had been lobbying against the changes - have expressed fears the numbers may drop as much as 60 or 80 per cent. Some 7,000 J1 visas were issued this year.
In a statement on Thursday, the US embassy in Ireland confirmed that prospective Irish J-1 participants will need to provide evidence of a pre-arranged job as part of their application.
The embassy said the requirement was designed to ensure “greater safety and security of participants, greater compliance, and a more rewarding cultural experience”.
Lauren Lovelace, the embassy’s director of public diplomacy and public affairs, said the decision was a global one and affected other visa-waiver countries such as the the UK and Germany.
“This has nothing to do with any recent experiences. It’s making global a pre-placement policy which has been in effect for some time in almost every other country in the world, and which has seen success in those countries,” she said.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, however, has expressed concern that the new rules may impact on the numbers of students participating in the programme.
“It was with some concern that I learned of the proposal to require applicants to arrange employment in advance of travel in order to obtain their J1 visas,” he said on Thursday.
“I raised the matter with very senior members of the US Administration during my visit to the US last month and I have in recent days also written to Secretary of State Kerry outlining my concerns,” he said
He said the J1 experience has been a rite of passage for many young Irish students and hoped it would continue to play an important and positive role in strengthening the Ireland-US relationship.
The embassy said the decision to change the policy was taken by independent US sponsoring agencies who vet and sponsor J-1 participants, supported by the US State department.
Irish-based programme sponsors such as Usit and Sayit are already advising students via their websites on the changes and the path to application.
Some of these organisations have said the new arrangments will, on a positive note, provide greater certainty for students and their families.
Ms Lovelace encouraged students to be “proactive” and explore their options in accessing support and organising a job.
She said US authorities were fully committed to working with young people and their parents to ensure students continue to have full opportunity to benefit from the J-1 programme.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently voiced concern that paperwork involved in the proicess could lead to a significant reduction in the number of visas granted.
On a recent visit to the US, he said that it could result in Irish students travelling on holiday visas instead and choosing to work illegally.
“I am not keen on a situation where there could be an abrupt ending to the J1 system as we know it, through the dramatic introduction of a requirement for pre-employment,” Mr Kenny said, during his visit.
He said he had sought to convince authorities to introduce a transition period for the new procedures.