Irish hopes of getting extra US visas suffer severe blow

US Senate fails to back proposal to give some E3 visas to Irish

Ireland's hopes of securing a new class of visa for Irish citizens have been effectively dashed after the proposal failed to get sufficient support from the US Senate.

The House of Representatives last month backed a new Bill that would have allocated a proportion of E3 visas, currently only available to Australians, to Irish citizens.

But the proposal needed unanimous support from the 100-member Senate.

While technically the Senate is still in session, with business expected to continue throughout Friday as members of Congress scramble to avert a government shutdown at midnight, any breakthrough on the Irish visa issue is seen as unlikely at this point.

Tom Cotton, a conservative Republican from Arkansas, raised concerns in recent days about the proposal, placing a "hold" on the proposed legislation. Despite intensive lobbying from Irish officials in Washington and Dublin, the 41 year-old senator would not lend his support to the Bill.

Ireland had been hoping to push through the legislation in the "lame duck" session of Congress – the period between the mid-term elections and the arrival of the new Congress in January. Paul Ryan, the outgoing speaker of the House of Representatives, had been a central figure behind the latest push for an immigration breakthrough for Irish citizens.

With Mr Ryan departing, and Democrats poised to take control of the House of Representatives, Ireland is unlikely to get the same level of political support in the incoming Congress.

John Deasy, the government's special envoy to the United States had been working in conjunction with the Embassy of Ireland in Washington to push through the proposal. Ireland had built up political support for the proposal – which had first been raised during the Taoiseach's meeting with Donald Trump in the Oval Office in March – from members of Congress and the Trump administration. While Australia initially had concerns about the impact Irish access to the visa programme might have on their citizens, ultimately Canberra came on board and was working in conjunction with Irish officials to secure improvements to the E3 visa scheme.

Signs that the deal could be running into difficulty emerged late last week, despite five out of six senators lifting their “hold” on the proposal. It had been hoped that a vote would take place on Thursday December 13th, but the decision was pushed back into this week.

A series of negative articles in the US press over the weekend, including from right-wing website Breitbart News, focused attention on the issue in Washington. The website noted that the proposal would allow “about 5,000 more Irish graduates per year to take salaried jobs in the United States, even though many of those jobs are also sought by debt-burdened US graduates.”

It decried the visa proposal as an “Irish-only bill” that it says could provide the Irish with roughly 50,000 endlessly renewable work permits per decade.

Mr Ryan also came in for particular criticism for prioritising the legislation in the final days as Speaker of the House. Mr Ryan is a proud Irish-American who spoke this year of his desire to become US ambassador to Ireland in the future.

The E3 visa programme was awarded to Australia in 2005 by the US as part of the US-Australia trade agreement, and was widely seen as a reward for Australia's support for the US in the Iraq war.

It is a two-year renewable visa which allows Australian citizens and their spouses to live and work in the United States. Applicants must have a job in the United States to quality and have certain academic or other qualifying credentials. But the E3 is significantly easier and less costly to obtain that the traditional H1B visa. It currently costs $250 to apply for the visa.

While Australia is offered 10,500 visas a year, only about half of those are taken up. Under the legislation that was being drawn up by the Department of Homeland Security, Ireland would have access to the allocation not used by Australia. One of the key selling-points of the Irish proposal was that the Irish government would have granted a reciprocal arrangement to US citizens, including those who want to retire in Ireland.

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