Written Answers. - Visa Applications.

John Cregan

Question:

126 Mr. Cregan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the involvement of the Government in the J1 visa scheme for students to the USA; if he will clarify the different interpretations being put by some US officials; if social insurance numbers are required by J1 visa holders to work and in advance of commencing work; if he will instruct the Irish Embassy and in particular the consulate in Boston to make greater efforts to assist and sort out problems; the reason some applications are taking over five weeks for social security numbers; and if students who are running out of money after five weeks without work will be assisted. [19508/03]

The J1 visa programme is administered by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States and the Government has no involvement in the operation of the programme. However, as part of my Department's consular role to assist Irish citizens abroad, our embassy and consulates general in the US monitor the situation of Irish J1 visa holders closely and raise their concerns with the US authorities as necessary. I am aware that a number of J1 visitors arriving in the US this year have experienced difficulties in obtaining social security numbers. I understand that these problems are not unique to Irish citizens or to this category of visa and are being experienced by visa holders from other countries also. They arise from new procedures introduced by the US social security administration last year as part of a general tightening of the regulations that apply to immigrants in the US following the events of 11 September 2001. Confirmation of an applicant's immigration status needs to be obtained from the Department of Homeland Security before a social security number can be issued. This has led to delays in the issuing of social security numbers to J1 visa holders.

The consulate general in Boston has been in contact with a number of Irish J1 visa holders in the Boston area who have been experiencing delays in receiving social security numbers. It has been working actively to help them overcome these problems. The consulate has spoken to the regional social security administration office and the Department of Homeland Security in Boston as well as to employers of Irish J1 visa holders. The embassy in Washington, on my instructions, has also taken up this matter with the US State Department. In response to the consulate's representations, the Department of Homeland Security has stated that it will devote additional staff resources to processing requests for confirmation of immigration status from the social security services and I am hopeful that this will help to overcome the current problems.

The US authorities have indicated that J1 visa holders do not require a social security number to begin work but that they must have applied for a social security number and obtained a letter from the relevant office to that effect before they can be paid. It is possible for employers to employ J1 visa holders pending receipt of the number but it appears that many employers are not aware of this. They are reluctant to take on employees who do not have a valid social security number in the current economic and security climate. The consulate general in Boston will continue to do everything possible to expedite the issue of social security numbers to Irish J1 visa holders and to ensure that employers are fully aware of the regulations. If an Irish J1 visa holder encounters financial difficulties as a result of delays in receiving their social security number, the consulate can help to arrange for the transfer of funds from family or friends in Ireland. The consulate does not, however, have any funds available to provide direct support to Irish citizens.