As many as 150 Irish students may not get the opportunity to go to America on a J-1 Summer Work Travel visa this summer as their US sponsor is facing difficulties in acquiring them a work permit.

Although the students have paid up to $896 (€800) upfront for the three-month visa, they have not yet received the approval to travel to the US and are concerned that they will miss out on the opportunity now that the Irish academic year is coming to an end. They may also lose the money they paid if their applications are unsuccessful.

Clients of Travel Bug Ltd, based in Castlebar, Co. Mayo, are concerned that their visa documentation has not yet been processed by the company, delaying them from organizing an interview with the US embassy, which will issue the visa.

In order to attend an embassy interview, students must first have been issued with a DS-2019 work permit by a sponsor as laid out in the new rules in effect for this year. Students must have employment in America arranged before US entry will be permitted.

Travel Bug is an Irish company which works with a US-based sponsor company to acquire DS-2019 work permits for students. In turn, the US-based company, American Work Adventures (AWA), deals with the US State Department to secure the permit.

Travel Bug has already received the full $895 (€799) payment (not including flights) from 57 students in order to secure their work permits and has received deposits from a further 100 students.

In a statement released on Monday, Travel Bug said: “Due to the changes in J-1 Visa regulations and increased State Department compliance requirements regarding job vetting this year, the sponsors are having tremendous difficulties processing the DS-2019 forms. This is causing enormous challenges and delays, as well as increases in DS-2019 denials.

“Although the sponsors have approved your job offers they are now informing us that they cannot guarantee you will receive a DS-2019.”

Read more: Irish J-1 visa guide launched as students urged to start looking for jobs now

Managing director of Travel Bug Caroline Joyce told The Irish Times that applicants who have paid the full fee will receive at least a 50 percent refund if their application is unsuccessful, but the company would not guarantee that students would get their deposits back.

Joyce said that the delay in issuing the DS-2019 to students who have already paid has been caused by a processing issue with AWA.

She stated that there had been difficulty contacting the US-based company but that US embassy officials have been informed and talks held with officials in the US to ensure students will still be able to travel this summer. Students have been advised not to book flights or accommodation until the processing issue has been cleared, however.

It is believed that Travel Bug is the only Irish company experiencing such delays and the only company using AWA as a sponsor.

Once made aware of the difficulties students had encounterd in getting a DS2019, the US Embassy in Ireland announced they would allow said students who successfully aaply for a visa with the embassy to personally collect the visa within two working days. 

"To accommodate students who have encountered last-minute processing issues with program sponsors, all Irish J-1 SWT applicants who apply for visas between May 23 and June 17, and whose visas are approved, will be permitted to collect their passports from the U.S. Embassy in Ballsbridge within two working days after their scheduled interviews," said the official embassy statement.

"Passport/visa collection will be at 2:00 p.m. and must be in person."

The J-1 Summer Work Travel (SWT) Program has long been a rite of passage for Irish third-level students, affording them the opportunity to work in the US during the summer months, primarily in the retail and hospitality industries.

Of the 300,000 worldwide participants on the program in 2014, 8,000 were Irish students and more than 150,000 have traveled from Ireland since the program was launched in 1966.

The introduction of new rules requiring pre-employment in order to secure the visa led to speculation that there would be a massive decline in the number Irish students undertaking the visa this year and in years ahead, which would have resulted in thousands more students staying in Ireland and looking for work during the summer months.

To counteract a possible drop in participants in 2016, the Union of Students in Ireland worked closely with Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and American Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, to create a 2016 guide offering advice to students on how to find a job, secure accommodation and make the most of their opportunity to experience the American way of life.

Another threat to the J-1 visa in recent years has been the issue of accommodation, with growing concern as to the future of the program in general following a number of high-profile cases in which Irish students are said to have damaged property while staying in the US.

Read more: J-1 visa program in peril, says Irish leader

A caller to #Liveline may not get his J1 visa in time, with flights booked ready to go - Joe will speak to him after 1.45 #j1 #america

— RTÉRadio1 (@RTERadio1) May 18, 2016

So far this year, it does not seem as if the new rules have greatly affected the work and travel program with many agreeing that it helps to clean up the process.

Speaking to IrishCentral’s sister publication the Irish Voice in November 2015, Michael Doorley, managing director of the Shandon Travel Group which oversees the Irish J-1 agency SAYIT, said that it would now be easier for students to find US jobs.

“The U.S. sponsors are tidying up the situation,” Doorley said. “We have been talking to some students and they feel that it will be helpful for them to have a job in the U.S. before they go. It will let them know exactly what they’ll be doing and where they will be. It will also help them get a head start on getting accommodation.

“It will be much better for the students to have all of this work done before they depart so they won’t have to worry about what they’ll do when they get to the U.S,” he added.

Tomás hasn't got his interview with the @USEmbassyDublin which could mean he won't get his #j1 visa

— Liveline (@Liveline_RTE) May 18, 2016

You can find further advice and personal stories on the J-1 year-long graduate visa in IrishCentral’s J-1 visa series here.

H/T: The Irish Times