Ah, the old J1 visa. The traditional rite of passage for Irish third-level students: travelling to the US for the first time on a working holiday, and returning with enough savings to finance another year of college fees. Or so the blurb goes.
Maybe that’s the way it was. Once. But ask a growing cohort of returning emigrants and they will agree, yes, that the J1 offers an opportunity – that is, the opportunity to be fleeced. And by the time they return home in September, the entire experience has actually left them out of pocket; a first introduction to the grown-up world of negative equity.
Apart from the fact that the Trump regime is about to cry halt to the time-honoured J1 student visa programme, the reality is that it has turned into a cash machine for a handful of operators who have been given monopoly power in the allocation of visas. Time was when an applicant for a J1, provided he or she had the patience to wade through the volumes of bureaucracy beloved of immigration authorities, could hope to complete the process by sheer effort and determination.
But not any more. Unlike applying for a Canadian or Australian visa, a J1 applicant cannot apply to the American embassy, but must apply via what is termed a designated sponsored agency. There are only five such Irish agencies designated by the US State Department, and their task is to screen visa applicants and to monitor them during their time in the US. What they choose to charge for this service seems to be left entirely to themselves. The State Department, in a classic example of keeping its distance, says it does not recommend or ‘rate’ any of the designated sponsors; it merely endorses them as being ‘in good standing’.
That’s where the fun really starts. And for the aspiring J1 applicant, whose main aim is a trip to America and the chance to come home a couple of thousand dollars better off, it’s the first brush with the world of hidden costs. There is the initial application fee to the agency, and then comes the $60 charge, payable to the agency but never mentioned in the information pack, to attend at the US embassy for a suitability interview.
Flight costs come next, but the applicant finds he has no say in either the booking or the fare. All of that is handled by the agency with a lack of transparency which is mind-boggling and which inevitably involves a fare well above that which the student would be able to source by his own efforts.
The big plus claimed by the visa agencies is that they will secure a job in advance for the student – a new rule introduced by the US authorities in 2016. To this end, the agency now hosts job fairs in Dublin (at a fee, of course), where participants have the chance to meet and sign up with prospective employers and – at least in theory – agree terms of employment.
By this stage, our prospective J1 holder is already several thousand euro in the red before he ever sets foot on the plane to Boston or Chicago. When he arrives, he will find it impossible to get affordable accommodation and, even worse, finds that the job hours he was promised have been cut due to a downturn in business.
Luckily, he has been assigned the help of a partner agency of his Irish sponsor in the US. Unluckily, however, he will find that the partner agency is located somewhere in remotest New England, as far away from the Irish diaspora as it is possible to be.