By Ray O’Hanlon
The Walsh Visas are offering a new start in life over the next few years to thousands of young Irish from economically disadvantaged areas on both sides of the border.
But while the visas pave the way to a legitimate three-year stay in America, the allocation of actual jobs to visa holders is a matter that is decided some distance from the steps of the Capitol, the building where the visa program was given political birth.
What is emerging, though the picture is still somewhat indistinct, is that some Walsh Visa winners are beginning to see themselves as potential economic losers.
For some, the advantage presented by escaping an economically disadvantaged area in Ireland has been drastically watered down by the reality of being presented with an economically disadvantaged job in the U.S.
Michael, not his real name, was one of the first Walsh Visa winners to arrive on U.S. soil.
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He had accumulated work experience in the retail sector in his native County Tyrone but more recently had been unemployed. The Walsh Visa plan looked like the prefect opportunity to get his life and career back on track.
"I was initially led to believe that I would be placed in a job in the retail sector, at least close to the shops, but I was placed in a restaurant job instead," Michael said.
After completing the required training course in Belfast, Michael arrived in the first wave of Walsh Visa holders and was assigned to a hotel outside Washington, D.C. His job was as a waiter in the hotel dining room, although the official job description was "Restaurant Server."
From the start, Michael said, he felt uneasy. He was not necessarily the most ambitious person ever born, but neither was he entirely unambitious.
"The whole point of this visa scheme was eventual economic uplifting and regeneration back home. I took this job to get my foot in the door in America," he said.
He began his job in early April, one week after setting foot on U.S. soil. Initially, Michael was given temporary accommodation beside the hotel complex but after a month he was supposed to find his own place, a move that would mean rent and commuting expenses.
For the first two weeks on the job, Michael was considered a trainee in the hotel restaurant.
"The pay was $6-an-hour but no tips. I didn’t find the training to be particularly in depth or thorough," he said.
At the end of the two weeks, Michael was to become a full waiter covering breakfasts at 6 a.m. and lunch.
"The pay at this stage would be $2.38-an-hour and I would be allowed accept tips," he said.
As it turned out, Michael was promoted to full waiter a couple of days early.
"On each of the days as a waiter I averaged $30 in tips plus the $2.38-an-hour for eight hours work."
He did his math. "I decided it wasn’t for me," he said.
Michael was required to work as a waiter for six months. He had been told that at the end of that period there was a good chance that he would be able to work as a bellhop in the hotel’s retail area.
Frustration and ambition both got the better of him. He quit the hotel and with "a couple of lads," made for New York.
"One of them said that there was no way he would spend three years working in an entry-level job. I agreed with him."
Michael is now "trying to work something out." He wants to work and make the most of his time in America. But now in his early 20s he said he feels the need to make a bit of money as well.
"A lot of guys down there have good educations, many better than mine. Some have degrees. We came over here expecting the world, but we were gravely mistaken."
Michael still wants to lay claim to a piece of the world, the special part of it called the America Dream.
"I do get homesick in certain ways, but my first instinct was to say no to going back. I want to get a permanent job here on my own. I want to make a go of it here.
"I’ve started getting some negative thoughts about it, but I hope that changes. I don’t want to disappoint people back home. I want to work here, definitely. But now I’m basically on the run, undocumented."