By: Ray O'Hanlon of The Irish Echo

It was a rare example of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill – and with the Irish in the middle of it.

The House of Representatives has approved legislation that would allow Irish applicants gain access to the E-3 visa program that is only open to Australians.

The legislation still requires Senate approval but the joining together of House Republicans and Democrats would appear to auger well for a matching measure in the Senate, though the hurdle in that chamber is larger than what it was in the House.

In the latter it was two thirds support, in the Senate it will have to be unanimous.

As it turned out the House voted unanimously on Wednesday evening for H.R. 7164, crafted by Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin, and co-sponsored by Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the Friends of Ireland group in Congress.

The bill had been in the pipeline for several years and has been tweaked several times, part because of Australian objection to the Irish being allowed to directly compete for the visas, 10,500 of which are awarded each fiscal year.

Instead, Irish hopefuls will be able to apply for those visas not taken up by Australians in each fiscal year.

It might be a second place of sorts but it also would be a first in that the Irish have lacked any large scale access to legal residency in the U.S. since passage of the Morrison visas in the early 1990s.

E-3s do no provide green cards but last for two years and are renewable indefinitely. Spouses of E-3 holders can also live and work legally in the U.S.

A release posted on Rep. Sensenbrenner’s website hailed the House approval of H.R. 7164.

“Today,” it stated, “the House of Representatives unanimously passed bipartisan legislation to extend E-3 visa eligibility to Irish Nationals. The bill was sponsored by Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI-05) and Richard Neal (D-MA-01).

The release carried Congressman Sensenbrenner’s delivered remarks on the House floor prior to the vote.

He said: “The United States was built on hard work and the determination of immigrants – many of them who hail from Ireland. Through their perseverance, they have enabled this country to grow and prosper.

“I believe in the value and opportunity that comes with legal immigration. I am pleased to have authored this legislation to make the process more efficient for one of our oldest allies, and add to the great legacy of cultural diversity celebrated our country.

“This modest proposal would give Irish Nationals the opportunity to work in the U.S. under the non-immigrant visa category of the E-3 Visa, previously reserved only for Australian nationals. Ireland in the meantime, has proposed a reciprocal work visa specific to U.S. nationals so that those wanting to live and work in Ireland can more easily do so.

“The E-3 visa is one of the most efficient U.S. visa options. Applicants outside the United States may apply directly at a U.S. consulate, thus avoiding lengthy processing times with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The visas are granted for 2 year periods (renewable indefinitely), and the spouses of E-3 visa holders are permitted to apply for employment authorization documents.

“Currently, 10,500 E-3 visas are allocated each year, yet only half of these are used. This legislation would allow Irish nationals to apply for those visas unused by Australian nationals.

“This significant addition to the U.S. immigration system will not only benefit Irish nationals seeking employment in the United States, but also ease restrictions on Americans wanting to live or retire in Ireland.

“In conclusion, I would like to say that this does not increase the number of visas that are authorized in total. It merely allows the Irish nationals to apply for the visas that Australian nationals do not want to use on a year-to-year basis.”

Congressman Neal, who is poised to chair the House Ways and Means Committee in January, invoked the mass passage of the Irish across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Hunger and its aftermath.

“America, to its everlasting credit the land of the great, home of the brave, welcomed them.”

Neal described the U.S. relationship with Ireland as “one of the great relationships in terms of allies that we have in the history of America.”

The E-3 initiative has been supported for some years by Irish immigration reform campaigners in the U.S., Irish American organizations, and the Irish government.

The Irish Times was reporting today that the Irish government’s special envoy to the U.S. Congress, John Deasy, and the Irish embassy in Washington, were advancing talks with senior figures on Capitol Hill and within the Trump administration about expanding access to the coveted visa scheme to include Irish people.

Speaking on Capitol Hill on Wednesday Mr. Deasy said that he welcomed the vote in the House, but noted that it now needed to gain approval in the Senate.

“This is an important step for it to have passed the House, but this now goes to the U.S. Senate where it will need to be considered under unanimous consent which will require all hundred senators to agree for it to be signed into law. I am under no illusions how difficult that may be,” he told the Irish Times.

Added the Times report: Among the key provisions of the E-3 visa is that applicants must have a job in the U.S. to quality and have certain academic or other qualifying credentials. But the E-3 is significantly easier and less costly to obtain that the traditional H1-B visa for professionals.

The report stated that the Irish government’s Department of Justice was looking at options to change the criteria needed for U.S. retirees, including lowering the income threshold needed and allowing retirees to work for up to twenty hours a week.

The Journal.ie web-based daily carried a reaction from Chicago-based Irish Senator Billy Lawless, an Independent representing the Irish diaspora.

“It is my ardent hope that in addition to creating future flow Irish immigration to the USA that many undocumented Irish will also qualify for this scheme,” said Lawless.

“We have seen disappointment in the past on immigration legislation, particularly in 2007 and 2013 when we came close, but I am cautiously optimistic in welcoming this new deal, given that the President, the Homeland Security Chief and the Speaker’s Office are pushing this bill forward during the lame duck session.”

Senator Lawless was here highlighting the fact that any future E-3 availability would not, as currently constituted, bring relief to the undocumented Irish, or indeed open the U.S. to potential Irish immigrants with a full spread of job skills.