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US EFFORTS TO MONITOR FOREIGNERS LEAD TO UNPRECEDENTED VISA-PROCESSING DELAYS

Slovak students pay a price for terrorism

AS A RESULT of increased security measures introduced by the US government, many Slovak students bound for summer work placements in the US were forced to leave later than planned, causing anxiety and, in some cases, extra expense.
Many participants of the Work And Travel (WAT) programme heading for the US did not receive visas granting them entry into the US before their planned departure date, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the programme.
For those involved, the delays added significant stress to an already stressful situation.

AS A RESULT of increased security measures introduced by the US government, many Slovak students bound for summer work placements in the US were forced to leave later than planned, causing anxiety and, in some cases, extra expense.

Many participants of the Work And Travel (WAT) programme heading for the US did not receive visas granting them entry into the US before their planned departure date, an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the programme.

For those involved, the delays added significant stress to an already stressful situation.

"The worst part of it was the uncertainty and fear," said Lucia, 21, a Comenius University student from eastern Slovakia, who was going to the US for the first time.

Lucia was planning to leave the country on June 17. Unlike her boyfriend - who studies at the same school, was going to the same destination in the US, and went through an identical application procedure - she did not get her visa delivered on time.

"When [my boyfriend] got his visa on June 16 and I didn't, we had to rebook our flights," she said.

"There were people who were in a much worse position than we were, because they were supposed to leave on May 30 and were still waiting for visas on June 16. And we know about a girl who had to pay an additional Sk3,600 (€86) to change her ticket. It's just crazy," said Lucia.

For many Slovak students, any additional expenses can represent a serious problem, as the agency fees alone can take up all their savings. Fees range from Sk15,000 (€360) to Sk30,000 (€720), depending on the agency and type of service provided.

The WAT USA programme allows full-time university students to work in the US for up to four months during the summer holidays. The US government appoints American organisations that act as "programme sponsors" to help applicants obtain all the necessary working papers and provide supervision and emergency backup services for the duration of the programme.

The US organisations have partnerships with local agencies, which deal with Slovaks who enrol in the programme.

Applicants have to submit all necessary documents to a local agency, which sends them over to the US, where the so-called DS-2019 form is issued. The DS-2019 is then sent back and is used as basis for a J-1 visa application at the US embassy in Slovakia.

"There are two reasons for this year's visa situation," said Ľudmila Oškerová, marketing and sales director at CKM 2000 Travel, one of the Slovak agencies offering the WAT programme.

"In 2003, the US government introduced the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) to monitor the movement of people who are in the US on a J-1 visa. The information about each WAT participant has to be recorded in the system by the partner organisations directly in the US. The introduction of the system had a few glitches that had to be resolved, and which slowed down the process of issuing the DS-2019 forms," said Oškerová.

"The other problem was that this year the partner organisations in the US had to verify all work agreements. The pace of that process depends on the employers themselves," she added.

As a result, the DS-2019 forms arrived late in Slovakia and the US embassy did not have enough time to process the requests.

"Agencies in all countries had to wait longer than usual for the visas [to be granted]," said Oškerová.

US representatives say threats to state security led to the introduction of the lengthier procedure.

"After the terror attacks of 2001 it was determined that the US government did not have adequate information on the location and activities of the large number of foreign students in the US," the US embassy in Slovakia said in a statement to The Slovak Spectator.

"A new database was introduced that requires the input of more biographical information into the system as well as greater verification of the information. This new system, along with an increase in the number of visa applications this summer, did cause a temporary backlog in processing visa applications under the WAT programme," the statement continued.

However, US officials say the problem has already been dealt with, and people need not worry about further problems.

"The embassy consular section has now managed to eliminate the backlog and visa applications are being processed normally," the embassy stated.

According to the statement, visa applicants were warned well in advance that they should be cautious.

"In February of this year the embassy sent out a press release urging travellers in all categories to apply for their visas as early as possible. The embassy also advises travellers not to buy their air tickets until they have first received their visas," US embassy said.

Experts believe that similar problems will be avoided next year.

"Since this year's situation was caused by the introduction of the SEVIS system, we don't expect anything like this to ever happen again," said Oškerová.

However that will not help students who lost money in this year's debacle, many of whom blame the agencies they paid to help them.

"The agency didn't meet its only real obligation," said student Lucia.

And officials say those who suffered damage this year are unlikely to receive any compensation.

"Because this situation was caused by outside factors, which neither the agencies nor the clients were able to control, it is impossible to determine who should indemnify the damages resulting from higher prices of flight tickets or from starting work at a later date," said Oškerová.

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