The legislation has a bland enough name — HR 7164. But if it passes the United States Senate this week, it will usher in a major change to a special category of visa that is currently only available to Australians.
The bill to “add Ireland to the E-3 non-immigrant visa program” sailed through the House of Representatives last month.
It now just needs to negotiate a final hurdle in the upper chamber.
At least one senator is understood to be preventing its passage, though perhaps because immigration is such a sensitive topic in America, it is hard to find anyone willing to talk on the record about it.
Irish officials are making a final lobbying push, trying to get the legislation over the line.
But if HR 7164 does not pass before the 115th US Congress rises for the final time, the legislation will expire.
The visa will remain exclusively for Australians.
Aussie E-3 the envy of other US allies
The E-3 visa was negotiated alongside the US-Australia free trade agreement.
It was interpreted by some as a reward for Australia’s contribution to the Iraq War.
It allows up to 10,500 recipients and their spouses to live and work in the US. It can be renewed indefinitely and is much easier and less expensive to obtain than other American work visas.
But Australia has only ever used a bit over half its annual quota and some other US allies have long wanted similar preferential treatment.
Ireland’s latest attempt to gain access to the scheme initially took Australian officials by surprise.
Ambassador Joe Hockey was apparently very unhappy when he initially found out.
He and other officials were worried HR 7164 could see Australians competing with Irish citizens for the visas.
Lobbying in Congress saw the bill amended and it now guarantees Irish citizens can only apply for visas that Australians do not use — on current numbers, that is about 5,000 a year.
The Trump administration has also made assurances the visa will be tweaked so it is easier to apply for, enough of a concession for Australian officials to now be “comfortable” with the current situation.
Ireland has powerful supporters
The Irish have some powerful figures in their corner as they lobby to the very end to get the bill through.
Outgoing speaker Paul Ryan and Donald Trump’s soon-to-be-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney are said to support the legislation.
But in the Senate and surrounding offices, few want to speak publicly about what is holding HR 7164 up.
The ABC has been told repeatedly one senator is seeking to “piggyback” on the bill and push broader immigration reform.
Another is understood to have briefly questioned whether more countries could be allowed access to the E-3 scheme.
Australia vigorously denies any suggestion it is trying to use its influence in Congress to covertly kill the legislation and insists officials are not in active contact with Senate offices about the bill’s progress.
Politics of immigration threatens Irish aspirations
Ultimately, it seems to be the politics surrounding immigration in America that now poses the greatest threat to Ireland’s E-3 hopes.
Six days ago, right-wing website Breitbart claimed the bill would “transfer thousands of white-collar jobs from US graduates to Irish graduates”.
On the other side of the political spectrum, social media users have accused Mr Ryan of hypocrisy for promoting increased Irish visa access given his voting record on immigration reform.
Worryingly for the Irish side, Democratic senator Brian Schatz recently appeared to criticise the legislation.
Australian officials have long hoped the uptake of E-3 visas would increase to somewhere closer to the cap.
Some say the current publicity surrounding the scheme, although initially unwanted, may actually boost awareness of the visa class and perhaps encourage more Australians to seek work in the US in the long-run.
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