The now US President-elect Donald Trump promised to end the long-standing J-1 Visa programme last August, which would bring about the end of what has become an institution for generations of Irish students. But will his administration actually axe the programme?
In August 2015, Donald Trump, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination at the time, announced via the immigration policy page of his campaign website that if he were elected president of the US, the J1 Visa Exchange Visitor Programme would be “terminated”. Trump pledged to replace the programme for “foreign youths” with a “a resume bank for inner-city youth provided to all corporate subscribers to the J1 Visa programme”. This policy, among others, is designed to “put American workers first”. However, the pledge to discontinue the J1 Visa programme has since disappeared from the Trump campaign website.
While concern over the long-term future of the J1 Visa programme is understandably high after the election results of November 8th, the Honourable Kevin O’Malley, Ambassador of the United States of America to Ireland, doubts that Trump’s administration will actually go ahead with the proposed change.
Speaking at an event held by Trinity’s Society for International Affairs (Sofia), O’Malley talked about the many benefits of the J1 Visa programme, describing such programmes as “the lifeblood of who we are”, emphasising that Americans “love having you over, we love hosting Irish students”. Answering a question from The University Times, the US Ambassador said that he was “perplexed” by what he read on Trump’s website regarding the discontinuation of the J1 Visa programme but that “based upon a lot of experience hearing a lot of things said during a lot of campaigns”, many campaign promises simply “never happen”, also adding that he doubts that the Trump administration will actually go ahead with axing the programme. “I think that when that programme is analysed and when the incoming administration sees the benefits that accrue from it, I wouldn’t be surprised if that [position] just changes.”
The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), the largest US State Department-designated sponsor of J1 Visa programmes, also addressed the future status of programme in a public statement published on Wednesday, November 16th.
Stating that policy change is a “lengthy process” requiring “vigorous and thorough analysis and debate”, CIEE highlighted its “excellent working relationships with career civil service, professional and political staff across the Executive Branch and Congress”.
“You can be sure that we will have a seat at the table should any change to J1 programmes be considered”.
As a non-profit, non-governmental organization, CIEE acts as the sponsor required by the US State Department for any J1 Visa applicants who use the two chief travel agencies for J1 Visas in Ireland: Usit and Sayit.
In an email to The University Times, Lisa Collender, Head of Marketing at Usit, said that the J1 Visa programme will go ahead as planned in 2017, and “if a change were to be made to the programme, it would require extensive legislative change that would come into play from 2018 at the earliest”.
Speaking at November’s meeting of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s (TCDSU) council, a representative from Sayit, Alyssa, also said that the any change will not affect next year’s programme, and that it would not be quick in coming, although they would not be able to say what would happen after 2017: “We can’t really say for the year after that  … we really don’t anticipate it happening that quickly because these things take some time.”
In its statement, CIEE, referring specifically to the J1 Visa programme, stressed that current programmes will go ahead as planned and that any future applicants should continue with their applications as planned: “Current participants should expect to complete their exchange programme according to a previously planned schedule, and prospective participants should expect to pursue a future programme according to standard timelines.”
Echoing the sentiments of O’Malley towards such programmes, CIEE stated that “international exchange is an enduring American institution and CIEE is committed to protecting and advancing its long and strong legacy”.
“We look forward sharing the American experience with many future participants on our programmes in the years to come”.
CIEE also pointed towards the support that international exchange programmes like the J1 Visa programme have both across the US political sphere and the globe, noting that these exchanges have “a long history of deep bipartisan support in Congress – from both the Democratic and Republican parties”.
“Outside of the US government, international exchange has countless stakeholders around the world – from employers, to schools, to host families and host communities, to sending countries and governments.”
Interestingly, CIEE emphasised the “great and longstanding tradition of tolerance across America” along with the organisation’s history of promoting that tradition, perhaps in response to worries across the US and further afield that under Trump’s administration, the US will become a less inclusive country to immigrants and minorities: “This is a country that celebrates diversity, freedom, multiculturalism and plurality. CIEE has a long history of bringing together people from different backgrounds to support harmonious relations between all people from all nations.”
Pointing to potential concerns that such proposed changes to immigration policy are due to security issues and not just under the guise of protecting American jobs, CIEE said that “J1 Visa programmes are tools for the advancement of US national security and cultural exchange”.
“By building mutual understanding between the people of the US and people of other nations, we are all stronger, safer and more prosperous”.
Overall, it appears that the many actors involved in both the J1 Visa programmes and wider international cooperation and exchange do not think that the J1 Visa programmes will be discontinued any time soon, if it all. Given the changes made to the programmes last year, which meant that those travelling to the US this summer had to secure employment before travelling, the J1 Visa programme system is most definitely in a period of great change. However, it does not appear to those involved in the organisation of the J1 Visa programme that Trump is guaranteed to uphold his campaign promise to axe the programmes.
This sentiment was perhaps best phrased by O’Malley, who advised those in attendance that if he were in the position many Irish students are now in, “I wouldn’t burn any J1 applications” any time soon.