Senators push visa program for Irish immigrants, but critics call measure ‘crass political opportunism’

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With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, politicians on both sides of the aisle are trumpeting a plan to let the Irish apply for up to 10,500 U.S. work visas a year.

Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) are trying to open up the E-3 visa program — which is now only for Australians — to Irish workers with job offers here.

“Let’s find a place for Irish people like anybody else. The only way to come to America to work at your aunt’s or uncle’s or anywhere else is as undocumented,” said pub owner Ciaran Staunton of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.

But not everyone is saying “Erin go bragh .” Groups normally at odds over immigration policy are united in panning what they say is a pork-barrel visa program.

“If you’re going to give special treatment to the Irish, why not every other national group that’s got a lobby in Washington?” said Ira Mehlman of Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to curtail immigration.

Frank Sharry, director of pro-immigrant America's Voice, said efforts by Brown — who voted against the DREAM Act to give green cards to undocumented students — ring false.

“It’s just crass political opportunism,” said Sharry. “I think the fact that some Republicans are trying to see how to exploit this, to help the white immigrants over the brown immigrants, is despicable.”

The roots of the Irish measure are in a wider bill that would upend the quota system that divvies up work-based green cards equally among countries.

High-tech workers from India and China face long waits, and the bill would make it easier for them at the expense of smaller countries like Ireland. The bill would also reduce wait times for Mexicans on family visas.

The Irish complained and Schumer tacked on a measure that would make them eligible for a special pot of two-year visas now reserved for Australians. Brown then introduced his own version.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Senate Judiciary Committee has a hold on the broader bill, but has offered a vote on just the Irish measure. He and Schumer are negotiating.

“We are working with Republicans to convince them that this bill will not increase total immigration numbers but will instead optimize the use of visas within our current system," said Schumer.

He said the wider bill would make it “virtually impossible” for Irish to work legally in the U.S.

“The Irish E-3 visa is a critical component to fixing our broken immigration system to ensure that we reward legal immigration and deter illegal immigration from one of America’s strongest allies,” he said.

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