What will visa changes in US, Australia and New Zealand mean for Irish emigrants?

Q&A: Why are immigration rules being changed, and who will be affected?

In the past two days, Australia, the US and New Zealand - three of the most popular destinations for Irish emigrants - have all announced plans to restrict their skilled visa programmes for foreign workers.

Why are they tightening their immigration rules, and what will the changes mean for Irish emigrants?

What has been announced?

Australia was first out the gate on Tuesday morning, with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing that the 457 visa for employer-sponsored skilled migrants will be scrapped and replaced by a temporary skills shortage visa, with a greatly reduced number of eligible occupations and other restrictions in place. "We'll no longer let 457 visas be passports to jobs that could and should go to Australians," he said.

This was followed later on Tuesday on the other side of the world by US president Donald Trump's signing of his long-anticipated "Buy American, Hire American" executive order to review the H1-B visa scheme, which is used to bring foreign employees into the US to work primarily in the high-tech sector.


Just hours later, the New Zealand government released a statement announcing its plans to tighten access to skilled work visas, as part of what immigration minister Michael Woodhouse called a "Kiwis-first approach to immigration".

Have the announcements come as a surprise?

Not really. No one was expecting all three countries to make the announcements within 36 hours of each other, but changes to their skilled migration programmes have been expected for a while.

The announcements come in the context of the rise of far right politics across the western world, particularly in the past year or so, and the spread of populist nationalism calling for tighter immigration controls.

Trump promised on the campaign trail to end the H1-B visa programme, which he claims is being abused by some companies to hire foreigners at lower rates of pay at the expense of American workers.

Both the Australian and New Zealand governments have also been under increasing pressure to restrict migration. Opposition leaders in New Zealand have cited housing shortages, road congestion and overcrowding caused by record levels of immigration as reasons for needing a new policy.

In Australia, a tightening economy, particularly in the mining and extraction sectors in Western Australia and northern Queensland, has led to a fall in demand for foreign workers in the construction sector. Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party has been heavily critical of the 457 visa programme in particular, accusing it of enabling foreign workers to be prioritised for jobs over local Australians.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the three announcements, the close timing of them aside, is the nationalistic “our citizens first” language employed by all three.

Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the changes to the 457 programme was part of a strategy of “putting Australians first”, while Woodhouse referred to a “Kiwis-first approach to immigration”. Both statements are almost a direct appropriation of Trump’s core “America First” policy.

In a radio interview with an Australian station on Wednesday, Turnbull referred to “Australian jobs for Australians” 16 times, according to a Reuters report.

Who will be impacted by the changes, and how?

We have very little detail so far about the proposed changes in New Zealand and the US, but Australia has released a comprehensive fact sheet (see border.gov.au).

The 457 visa will be replaced with a "short-term" (two-year) or "medium-term (four-year) Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa in March 2018. The number of occupations eligible for a skilled visa (both the 457 and the new TSS) has been reduced with immediate effect from 651 to 435, with caveats on a further 59. Other restrictions and conditions - such as longer work experience, better English-language proficiency, a criminal record check, and labour market testing - will be introduced on a phased basis until the 457 visa is abolished completely in March 2018. Most trades occupations will be eligible for the short-term TSS only.

Workers currently holding a 457 visa will not be affected, but those with applications in the system, or who intend to apply, will be subject to the new rules.

The occupations removed from the skills shortage list include many creative professions such as actors, singers, composers and authors, and others which would also have attracted very few Irish applications, including zookeepers, goat farmers, jockeys and sail makers. But the removal of some manufacturing, HR, PR and media roles will impact more potential applicants from Ireland.

Have other visa programmes been affected?

No - not yet at least. The working holiday visa programmes, which allow Irish people aged 18 to 30 to travel and work there for up to two years in Australia and a year in New Zealand, will continue as they are. We don’t know yet what particular skilled visas will be subject to change in New Zealand, but in Australia, it is the 457 programme only; in the US, it is just the H1-B.

I would still like to live and work in Australia/New Zealand/America. What are my options?

In Australia, there are still plenty of options available. Those under the age of 30 have the easiest route into the country through the working holiday visa programme, which allows anyone, regardless of skills or qualifications, to travel and work for a year (which can be extended to two by working for three months in a rural area).

If your occupation is still on the skills shortage list, you will be eligible for the new two or four-year TSS visas. Skilled workers may still be able to apply for other visa programmes too, such as the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (subclass 187) or the Skilled Independent Visa (subclass 189), depending on your qualifications, experience, and where you want to live.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has an excellent website which walks applicants step by step through the requirements and application process for the dozens of visa options. See border.gov.au.

Entry to the US is more restricted for foreign workers. In the last few years however, rising numbers of Irish have been granted L visas for specialist tech workers, E visas for people who trade and invest with the US, and O visas for those with "extraordinary ability", offering an alternative to the H1-B. For those who have recently graduated, the J-1 visa programme is also popular, allowing them to work and travel in the US for up to 12 months. The US Department of State has a directory of visa categories and a visa wizard to help you find the one most suitable for you. See usvisas.state.gov.

The situation is less clear in New Zealand. Keep an eye on immigration.govt.nz for updates. The site also has a handy VisaOptions tool which allows applicants to check their eligibility for a range of work, travel and study visas.

Have the opportunities to settle long-term in Australia been reduced?

For some candidates, yes. The 457 visa provided a “pathway to permanent residency” for workers who wanted to stay on and make a life there, by allowing them to apply after two years. This was extremely popular with Irish people in recent years, many of whom went on to become citizens Although the medium-term TSS visa will allow applications after three years, those on the short-term TSS visa will no longer be eligible.

This week Turnbull also flagged changes to Australia’s citizenship programme, including the introduction of a tougher citizenship test. Plans have also been leaked for a provisional visa for permanent resident applicants before PR is granted.

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine