State and US extend one-year J-1 programme for three years

Irish and US officials hold talks on summer version of student visa targeted by Trump

The J-1 visa programme that allows Irish students work for 12 months in the US is being extended for another three years under a new agreement signed by the Irish Government with the State Department.

Just 46 days before president-elect Donald Trump takes office, a memorandum of understanding was signed in Washington on Monday renewing the 12-month Ireland Work and Travel Programme that enables Irish and US citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to work and travel in each other's countries.

The agreement on the cultural exchange programme was signed by Irish ambassador to the US Anne Anderson and the assistant secretary of the bureau of educational and cultural affairs at the US State Department Evan Ryan at the department's headquarters in Foggy Bottom, Washington.

The agreement does not cover the J-1 summer visas, the requirements for which changed this summer forcing students to arrange employment before travelling to the US.

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That led to a drop-off in numbers, from 7,000 in 2015 to 4,200 this year. The summer programme was the subject of talks between Irish and US officials after the signing of the agreement between the two countries in the Treaty Room of the State officials. A further 3,000 Irish students availed of the one-year visa in 2015.

Speaking before the signing of the agreement, Ms Anderson talked about the importance of the J-1 programme, which benefits 300,000 students in total to the US, in the context of Mr Trump’s expected immigration crackdown after his campaign promises during the presidential election campaign.

“As part of that debate, there is likely to be some consideration of exchange programmes and the role they play. Ireland will of course be making its case on the wider issues of immigration reform, but we will also be happy to share our tremendously positive experience of J-1 programmes,” she said.

“These J-1 programmes are not just an act of generosity towards young people, although they certainly offer life-changing experiences and opportunities. But they are about so much more than that – conferring mutual benefit, projecting soft power and building enduring relationships.”

As part of the reciprocal agreement, the State Department formally moved a work and travel programme for US post-secondary school students from a pilot to an official basis.

"We know how much this programme reflects and reinforces the deep cultural, familial and economic connections between the US and Ireland," said Ms Ryan, who is married to deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken, the former deputy national security adviser to president Barack Obama.

Promise

Mr Trump, who takes office after the January 20th inauguration, made a promise to end the J-1 programme during his campaign to make way for a jobs programme for young Americans in inner cities.

Ms Anderson discussed the summer programme with US officials during her visit to the State Department on Monday. She said that the Government wanted “to do everything possible” to restore the number travelling to the US under the summer programme to the 2015 level.

“We had concerns that changes to the summer programme introduced last year would have the unintended effect of reducing numbers and this in fact proved to be the case,” she said.

During her speech, the ambassador described the J-1 summer visa programme as “a cherished rite of passage for so many young Irish people”.

“There can be few better examples of public diplomacy in action,” she said. “The programme attracts some of our best and brightest. Before they leave, we remind them that they are ambassadors for Ireland; after they return, we see them develop a dual mandate: as well as being the face of Ireland in America; they help communicate America to Ireland.”

Former Democratic congressman Bruce Morrison, an immigration lobbyist who was among the members of the Irish-American community at the signing ceremony, said that Mr Trump could cancel the agreement with an executive action under new regulations to change authorised immigration programmes.

“I think Donald Trump’s focus was on the summer programme but I think everybody should relax about something happening on January 20th or 21st,” he said of the Republican’s campaign pledge.

“Even though he said that, he said a lot of things, sometimes two different things and I doubt this is his first order of business.

“But there are opponents to various parts of the ‘J’ programme, not so much the one-year visa but the summer programme. There have been issues with the summer programme, not really the ones that have been focused on with Ireland but with people working in sub-standard working conditions.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent