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Students slam travel company USIT's lengthy J1 visa delays as a 'disgrace'

By Emma Nevin

College students scheduled to fly to America to work over the summer have been left "frustrated and stressed" over lengthy delays and lack of communication from travel company USIT.

The company specialises in student programmes and college students can apply for their J1 visas through their self placement programme at a cost of €850, or their guaranteed job scheme that is €1149.

However, students have flagged long delays with applications and many have been left in limbo as the summer approaches.

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Trinity student Sarah Domoney sent off her application and documentation to USIT at the end January, with herself and three friends intending to be in Chicago by June 1.

Part of the process is to have a phone interview with USIT but Sarah said she was left on hold for extended periods of time and struggled to get through.

The college student told Dublin Live that she emailed numerous times requesting assistance with arranging a phone interview but received no response.

The only communication she received from the travel company until mid-April was them requesting the balance of the €850 fee to be paid.

She said: "Considering we had sent them a load of emails asking for assistance with the phone interview and enquiring about whether they could call us, the only emails we had received from them at that point were payment deadline emails, so that was really frustrating."

Sarah said she paid the balance and got through to USIT for the phone interview at mid-April, after being on hold for 52 minutes.

The call lasted 90 seconds and all of the questions she was asked were already answered through the forms she had filled out back in January.

Sarah's application was then progressed to the job offer stage and she uploaded all the required forms straight away.

She said since last month's phone call the only communication she has received back from USIT is being told that she will probably not get her Visa in time for her June 1 start date and they recommended her to change it to the third week of June.

"We started this process on January 28 and then to be told at the end of April that we probably wouldn't get over until mid-June is extremely frustrating," Sarah said.

"Currently we have had no communication from USIT as to when those forms we sent will be accepted, when we'll get our DS2019 form so we can apply for an Embassy interview.

"It's incompetence from USIT. It's just a disgrace."

Read more: Irish tourist warned to book flights now as prices set to soar

She said she has friends who went with different travel companies and received their Visas without any issues.

Sarah also explained that by pushing her travels back to mid-June, it would become very difficult for her and her friends to find somewhere to stay as most leases start at the beginning of the month.

UCD student Jenny is one of a group of students who set up a J1 Students Twitter account as an attempt to get through to the company after many unanswered calls and emails.

She told Dublin Live that she began her application in January and had all the forms sent off by February 10, but went months without any update from USIT.

She said: "I wasn't getting any response from emails. Then I started to get really stressed by April.

"This whole time, I could not get into contact with them at all.

"Time went by and we were doing exams and assignments so we were all getting so stressed about it. It would ruin everyone's day if it was brought up.

"When I finished up college, I said I had to get moving on this.

"I was still unable to get through to them so a group of us decided to set up a Twitter page to get some attention."

Jenny said UCD Students' Union became aware of the issue and contacted USIT on her behalf.

Following the Union's involvement, she received a call from USIT this week but learned they had switched her US sponsor.

Jenny said: "She (the USIT call operator) said I would have gotten emails about it but I didn't receive any emails whatsoever."

Jenny said USIT told her that her forms were sent to the sponsor on April 20, but her US employer has not received any contact from the sponsor to date.

"It's so hard to trust what they say because they keep lying," Jenny said.

"It's just a bit of a joke at this stage, it's really awful."

A spokeswoman for USIT told Dublin Live that "sheer volume" is one of the reasons for delays with applications.

She said: "Like all other businesses in the cultural exchange sector right now, USIT and other stakeholders in the J1 process have faced many challenges caused by the pandemic such as high demand, COVID illness, shipping delays and staff shortages. The principle difference between us and them is sheer volume.

"There are several different stages to a J1 application including screening, interview of candidate, job matching, job interviews, vetting and compliance of US employers, and US Embassy interview so the entire process can take time as each application is worked on by us and with our US Sponsors.

"This can mean that those who applied at the same time as each other may not be at the same stage of the process. Some of the compliance required by the programme guidelines has had delays due to a variety of reasons including incomplete documentation, errors on paperwork submitted to us and so on."

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The spokeswoman said USIT and the US Embassy are "collaborating closely to expedite matters".

"We have a team of 20 agents working tirelessly across the programme to handle the high volumes of J1 queries via phone and email," she said.

"At certain times, the call queues can take more time to get through especially around lunch time. We acknowledge these delays fully and appreciate that this is extremely frustrating.

"We are grateful for the patience shown here and ask that customers reach out on one channel only and never via social media so that we can keep the process as streamlined as possible.

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"We continue to run twice weekly Zoom meetings every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-4.45pm. These are available to all customers to provide general updates and information. The link to the sessions is https://www.j1online.ie/events

"In addition, USIT and the US Embassy are collaborating closely to expedite matters and create earlier available interview dates so that students with completed documentation can meet their departure dates.

"All our stakeholders are aware of the delays and US Employers are being extremely understanding about delayed start dates. However, if any students cannot make a later start date work for them this summer and wish to cancel from the programme, we will refund their USIT participation fees and these are typically processed within 7 working days."

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