Monday, January 10, 2011

Negotiating the US visa minefield

Negotiating the US visa minefield

Niall Stanage – Irish Times – 9 January 2011

From the horror of the Famine to the bleakness of the last big recession, in the 1980s, Irish people have often tried to escape tough times by crossing the Atlantic. This time, although the US is in better shape than Ireland, it is hardly thriving. The recession and an unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent have taken much of the gloss off the Land of Opportunity.

Those who want to take their chances will have to negotiate thickets of immigration law. Even US visa classifications can be confusing, even intimidating, at first glance.

The picture becomes a lot simpler if you bear two points in mind. First, most people can safely ignore lots of visa classifications, as many are designed for specific applicants, such as diplomats, athletes and journalists. Second, the key division is between non-immigrant and immigrant visas. The terminology aims to distinguish between visas that can lead smoothly to full US citizenship and those that cannot.

All major visas are difficult to obtain – unless you are lucky enough to win the green-card lottery – which the US government prefers to refer to as the diversity immigrant visa lottery program. The deadline for this year’s draw was earlier this month.

Those who want to apply next year should take a realistic view: only 50,000 visas are issued worldwide, of which only about a third go to Europe.

There are two other main ways to get on the track to US citizenship. One is to be sponsored by an immediate family member. This remains the most common way of obtaining a green card, and eligibility is clear-cut: if you don’t have a spouse, a child under 21 or a parent who is an American citizen, you are out of luck, at least in the short term. (There are more drawn-out procedures for less immediate relatives.)

The other main route is to be sponsored by an employer. This can work well, but again it is important to be realistic. The employer will have to be willing not merely to offer you a job but also to prove that no American has the skills to fill the position. The speed with which such an application will be processed also depends on the applicant’s skill level. Green cards for those with “extraordinary ability” or who are “international managers” can be processed quickly. Visas for those on the lowest levels can sometimes take years.

As for non-immigrant visas, one relatively recent development was a September 2008 expansion of the well-known J1 visa. Whereas the J1 was once synonymous with summer trips, Irish students and recent graduates can now live and work in the US for up to a year.

Those who have left their student days long behind should keep in mind that an employer can sponsor an alien for a non-immigrant visa (the H1B) rather than a green card. They may be more willing to do so, as it is a slightly less onerous process, but they still have to vouch for the new arrival. In the current climate it could be difficult to prove that no American can do the job in question.

Overall, the situation is not especially bright. For people who are not students, recent graduates, green-card-lottery winners or relations of US citizens, the hurdles are high.

Some of those desperate for a taste of the American dream may think of moving to the US illegally. They would be better to think again. Getting caught will almost certainly result in deportation and restrictions on returning to the US; even success will condemn the illegal immigrant to years of waiting nervously for a tap on the shoulder.

Your first port of call should be the US embassy in Dublin ( visas.html), which provides a comprehensive rundown of the types of visas available.

Other useful websites include:

US Citizenship and Immigration Services

US Department of State

American Immigration Lawyers Association

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs (for contact details for the Irish Embassy in Washington and consulates in other cities)

The most widely used site for classified ads – for housing and jobs, say – is


This is taken from an Irish Times series on current emigration trends from Ireland. Unlike a recent article which appeared in the Irish Independent containing some very misleading statements from people who should know better, this article gives some sound advice to young Irish people regarding immigration to the U.S. in these very difficult economic times. They would be well advised to give serious consideration to the negative aspects and possible consequences outlined here.

Jack Meehan, Past National President

Ancient Order of Hibernians in America

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