New job-first US visa rules for students 'may impact on numbers travelling'
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has said he is concerned about new job-first rules for most J1 students.
Under a toughened immigration regime in the US, full-time college and university students will have to show employment papers to booking agents before they can apply for the special summer visa.
Mr Flanagan said the tightened rules may prove challenging for many and hit numbers going to the United States.
"For almost 50 years, the J1 experience has been a rite of passage for many young Irish students and has played an important and positive role in strengthening the Ireland-US relationship," he said.
"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."
Ireland sent 7,000 J1 students to the US last year - the highest from anywhere in the world.
Mr Flanagan said he raised his concerns with senior members of the Washington administration on his visit to the US last month, had written to Secretary of State John Kerry and contacted US Ambassador Kevin O'Malley.
Irish diplomats have also been asked to monitor the impact of the new rules on the numbers travelling.
Mr Flanagan said: "I am concerned that meeting the requirements of the new rules may prove challenging for many students and this may in turn impact on the numbers of students participating in the programme."
The toughened rules are being enforced as the US marks 50 years of the J1 which has seen 150,000 students travel for all or part of the four months over summer.
The US embassy in Dublin said it was " fully committed to its continued success".
It also said the initiative was being taken by sponsoring agencies CIEE, which works with travel agent Usit, and Interexchange, which works with Sayit, primarily to improve the safety and security of students going to the US and to ensure greater compliance with the visa regulations.
They set their own rules on visa applications, the embassy said.
The sponsors issue the vast majority of Irish student visas and on behalf of the US State Department they are also responsible for ensuring compliance with all of its rules.
Other countries falling under the new job first rule are the UK, France and the Czech Republic.
Usit, one of the biggest providers of travel bookings for students, has already posted relevant information on J1 changes online noting the job offer must come through before any documents will be issued for a visa application.
Agents will vet the job offer and process work papers before giving successful J1 applicants access to thousands of employers and invites to hiring fairs.
The US embassy added: " Pre-placement procedures for J1 Summer Work Travel students are already in effect and enjoying success in nearly every country in the world.
"The pre-placement requirement is designed to ensure greater safety and security of participants, greater compliance, and a more rewarding cultural experience in the United States."
"The State Department, including the US embassy in Ireland, is fully committed to working with the Irish government; independent US and Irish implementing institutions; and Irish young people and their parents to ensure that Irish students continue to have full opportunity to benefit from the J-1 Summer Work Travel Programme for many years to come."
Taoiseach Enda Kenny claimed the tougher rules could see a 60-80% fall in the number of Irish on J1s.
He also warned about the risk of people travelling to the US on holiday visas only to try to secure work illegally.
The Union of Students of Ireland said it expected a significant fall in the numbers but cautioned over the Taoiseach's assessment.
"I think that for the first few years while we get used to the new system, it will mean fewer people will go," president Kevin Donoghue said.
"It's frustrating, it's disappointing and we will provide as much support as we can."
Mr Donoghue said he doubted whether all the employers in all the fields where J1 students traditionally work would have the capabilities of guaranteeing work for a summer several months in advance.
"We can't all go out as camp counsellors," Mr Donoghue said.