Will Trump build a wall to keep out Irish students?

Before his election, the next American president threatened to ‘terminate’ the J1 visa programme, which has been enjoyed by Irish students since the 1960s

Statute of liberty: an Irish J1 visa holder serving ice cream in Boston. Photograph: Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Statute of liberty: an Irish J1 visa holder serving ice cream in Boston. Photograph: Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images


It’s been a rite of passage for generations of Irish students every summer: three months of American freedom and fun, peppered with hard work and life lessons. But a new generation of students is facing a worrying question: are the days of the J1 visa programme numbered?

One of the driving forces behind American president-elect Donald Trump’s meteoric political rise was his promise to reform US immigration policy. In August last year, when he was running for the Republican nomination, he specifically targeted the visa programme.

“The J1 visa jobs programme for foreign youth will be terminated and replaced with a resumé bank for inner city youth provided to all corporate subscribers to the J1 visa programme,” a 2015 position paper read.

Politicians, however, have a track record of campaigning in poetry but governing in in prose. So how real is the threat to the J1? Or will the pledge be quietly dropped along with other policy proposals?

The US State Department and agencies say it is business as usual and is encouraging students to continue to apply.

The J1’s long history and recognition as a vital US diplomatic tool, combined with the impracticality of trying to change decades-old federally mandated policy, make a complete overhaul of the programme highly unlikely, say the two largest J1 sponsors operating in Ireland.

“International exchange has a long history of deep bipartisan support in Congress – from both the Democratic and Republican parties,” said the Council on International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit US organisation that sponsors the J1 here. “J1 visa programmes are tools for the advancement of US national security and cultural exchange, not pathways for immigration or labour programmes.”

Larry Donnelly, a lawyer from Boston who lectures at NUI Galway, is also sceptical that the system is under threat. “Barack Obama also said he was going to undo a lot of things,” he says. “The reality is, the J1 has been around for a long time, the infrastructure around it has been around for a long time, and I think it’s going to be tough to dismantle all of that.”

J1 participants hope Trump will not cancel the programme and suspect he won’t be able to implement many of the policies he has promised.

His election, however, has made them think twice about moving more permanently to the US. Eoin Fitzgerald has spent two consecutive summers in the American midwest.

“In four years’ time, during the next election cycle, I may revisit the possibility of living there,” says Fitzgerald.

While Donnelly stresses that Trump has a record of proving people wrong, summer 2015 was the last time the businessman mentioned the J1 visa. Donnelly points out that the 45th president of the US now wants to keep “immigration levels within historic norms”.

A popular programme

Whatever about the scheme’s future, it is as popular as ever. Around 10,000 Irish people travel to the US annually on J1s, working as camp counsellors, interns, wait staff or au pairs for anywhere from three months to a year.

Of the 14 separate J1 programmes offered, the most popular is “summer work travel”. This programme isn’t just an opportunity for students to earn money and work experience in between academic years. Rather the programme, which is overseen by the US Department of State, emphasises education and cultural exposure to strengthen international relationships, says Keri Lowry, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for private exchanges.

According to the department’s data, Ireland consistently receives the fifth-highest number of J1 visas, just behind large countries such as Germany and Brazil. Per capita, however, Ireland comes out on top by far. From Cape Cod’s country clubs and Wisconsin water parks to the bars of downtown Chicago, you will find Irish J1 participants.

“The numbers [for Ireland] are high and will continue to be high,” says Lowry. “It’s in the bloodstream.”

Ireland’s inimitable sense of community gives momentum to word of mouth, the programme’s most effective endorsement, she adds.

The many students who spend one, two or three summers in the US are following a long line of Irish who have done the same since the early 1960s.

“My friends said it was brilliant,” says James Bourke (23), who spent the past summer working for a commercial bar designer in Chicago. “And I’d just finished college, so it was my last chance of freedom.”

Another Irish participant, Eoin Fitzgerald (22), says it is an experience that every student should try at least once. “My parents had done it and I know countless people who are now in their 40s who did it. It’s a rite of passage for college students. You just get to experience a different culture that’s not Irish or European in any way.”


1 Have a hands-off approach to the preparation process
From finding a job and filling out visa application forms to booking flights and accommodation, “they’re doing a lot of organising for themselves,“ says Bernadette Ryan, a therapist with Relationships Ireland. “It’s a good adult experience for them.”

2 Offer guidance where they might need it
Sit down and have a chat to them about big financial commitments like rental deposits and realistic budgeting, adds Ryan, whose own daughter spent her J1 summer in California two years ago. “Don’t stand over them, but be practical.“

3 Chat with their friends if you’re worried
If there’s good reason to be concerned – such as a medical condition – talk to their friends and inform them of the situation. Remember: under the new pre-placement rules, students are getting off their flights, going to jobs and earning money straight away, so no need to fret.

4 Keep in touch
It’s important to stay in contact. But let them lead any communication by saying things such as “If you want to talk...”, advises Ryan.

5 If you can, see them off at the airport
“The kids are going to be feeling a bit apprehensive as well, so it’s nice to know they’re supported,” Ryan says. “Not smothered, but supported.”

6 Be glad for them
Let them enjoy the time and space they have. “Its a big letting-go. It can be, for many young people, the first time they’re setting out into the world on their own,” says Ryan. “It’s okay to feel that wedge. Allow yourselves to feel those feelings, and then move on.”


How to apply: You must be enrolled in full-time tertiary studies to apply. Last year, the two largest J1 sponsors operating in Ireland introduced a policy requiring students to have a summer job vetted and approved before they will even be issued the documents needed for a visa application.

There are two ways to secure pre-placement. You can use family, friends and other contacts to find work on your own.

Or you can comb through the sponsors’ lists of pre-approved employers, thereby sidestepping any additional screening.

But don’t expect to become Austin’s most popular rickshaw driver or to start a career in adult entertainment – the US State Department won’t let you go for just any job. The full list of programme exclusions can be found on its website (j1visa.state.gov).

Once you receive a suitable job offer, submit it for review to your J1 agency in Ireland – either Usit or Sayit Travel.

While the additional red tape does stretch the application process, the architects of the change say its extensive vetting process does more to prevent employee exploitation.

Where to go: The west coast and the Big Apple have long been the most popular destinations for Irish students. Less trendy states such as Illinois and South Carolina, however, are drawing more students each year, and the State Department expects continued growth.

Costs and accommodation: Before you can start earning money, you’re going to have to spend some. For the 2017 programme, Usit is asking for a €499 fee to cover recruitment assistance and the processing of all your paperwork. This doesn’t include flights, travel insurance or additional embassy fees.

Living costs vary widely depending on where you end up. You can search popular American rental sites such as zillow.com and trulia.com.

Or think about looking at the nearest university’s dedicated housing sites. There are also groups on Facebook full of current and past J1 participants, who are more than happy to give each other advice about finding housing.

To help you budget, remember the federal minimum wage in the US is currently $7.25 an hour. Tipped labour such as bartending can pay lower rates, but with tips included you must be earning at least minimum wage.

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