By Patrick Markey and Ray O’Hanlon
Irish, British and American officials will carry out a planned review of the Walsh visa program at the end of the month.
Although the review was scheduled at the start of the program, it has been given added urgency by reports of dissatisfaction among some of visa holders now working in the United States.
The review will take place over three days and will involve officials from the Irish and British governments, the U.S. State Department, training agencies from Ireland, north and south, and Logicon, the company contracted to find employment for visa participants.
All visa holders still in the program have been sent a questionnaire to report about their experiences in the program.
Three hundred and ten people have arrived on the program since it’s pilot phase began six weeks ago, and 47 — two of them children with their parents — have either been sent home or returned voluntarily.
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The U.S. State Department says while most participants are making new careers here as the program intended, officials are still ironing out troublesome wrinkles.
But criticisms filtering through from those who have left the program are forming a picture of disappointment as disillusioned young people say they are receiving little of the assistance and training they were promised.
Two young men dismissed from hotel positions recently traveled from Colorado and, without receiving money they said was owed to them, spent two nights sleeping in Central Park before finding assistance in New York.
Created for the unemployed and undertrained youth from disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland and rural Ireland, the Walsh visa promised jobs and training in life skills and conflict resolution that participants could take back home.
Angie Scott, a 25-year-old Falls Road woman had hoped that she could take advantage of those possibilities. But she arrived in New York over the weekend after traveling from Colorado Springs, where she left behind a job as a telephone operator in a hotel complex.
Before leaving Belfast, Scott said had trained for a year with the BBC as a production assistant and she had believed she would be able to secure a supervisor position in Colorado.
"It just sounded so good and I thought I could do well over here," Scott said in an interview with the Irish Echo in New York.
In Belfast, Scott was told she would work in a front-desk slot, but two days before leaving she was informed she would be a telephone operator. Training officials in Belfast told her to accept the job because she could change easily to a better post when she arrived.
But when she asked management in Colorado to look again at her resume and move her into a more challenging position, she was told bluntly: You’ve signed the contract, you’re here for six months, there’s nothing you can do."
Scott decided to come to New York after receiving only $400 for 80 hours of work, a wage she believed she could not live on in Colorado, she claimed. Organizers also told her if she left the housing she had been assigned in a rough neighborhood, she would be fired and sent home.
"To be honest, there wasn’t anywhere for me to go. I wouldn’t have been prepared to do that job at home. I just felt I had so much more to offer," she said.
Two other men, Derry native Gerald Toland and Declan Keenan of Belfast were fired from the program they said after taking a few days off to recover from sickness. Although they said they followed procedure, their positions were terminated.
Interested in horticulture, Toland had been told in Derry he could work as a groundskeeper but ended up cleaning sprinklers on a golf course, a position he was told he would have to keep for a year.
"I thought there must be a plan. You start and work your way from the bottom. You have to start somewhere," Toland said.
Toland said he received no training and was given no indication that his situation would improve.
Keenan, who had almost finished a carpentry apprenticeship in Belfast, had hoped to complete his training in the U.S. He was told to accept a position cleaning laundry and wait for an opening in his chosen field, although the hotel said no such position was available.
"I thought it would be a good chance to finish up in America," he said. "I was willing to try because I thought if I get over there, I’d eventually get into that position."
During a meeting with Logicon officials at the hotel, both men said their complaints about working conditions, training and accommodation were not addressed.
"People have given things up. We have nothing to go back to. We’ve given up everything for the Walsh visa," Keenan said.
Both men also claim that there were disparities in the money they were told they would receive and the payments they were given, particularly a $1,500 payment set aside for housing. Both left for New York last week and spent two days in Central Park before finding assistance from the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.
The center, which helped initiate the visa and had been a contender for involvement in the Walsh contract, has now emerged as a critic of how the program is being administrated.
Cause of confusion
A State Department spokesperson, Pat Nelson-Douvelis, said participants were told clearly about the jobs they would be doing and employers often required them to stay in positions until they had gained the skills for promotion.
Particularly in the hotel business, participants would pass through many areas in the business to learn the skills needed for higher-level posts, she said.
But Nelson said training organizations in Northern Ireland and Ireland may have contributed to confusion over what work would be completed in America.
"Sometimes I think some of the participants just haven’t understood clearly what would be required or what the job actually meant," she said.
"None of them have been there longer than six weeks or so working. So I would say that if they gave it a chance they would see they won’t be stuck washing dishes that isn’t the idea at all."
Nelson said after the pilot phase finished in July, officials would evaluate how to move the program on to the next stage.
"It’s early days for the program and for these young people. It is very hard to move countries, we all know that," she said.
"Anything that makes them feel uncomfortable is just going to be exaggerated."