Washington | The US is poised to scrap a plan that would have forced professional and highly-skilled Australians to compete with workers from Ireland for an attractive visa category that experts say is being under used.
Australians will continue to have exclusive access to 10,500 so-called E3 visas per year - a unique category that no other country can claim.
However, in an amended bill reintroduced by Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT) any unused quota would be offered to Irish workers in the subsequent fiscal year.
The change, which is expected to be adopted before the end of the year, ends weeks of lobbying by the Australian embassy in Washington, which was concerned that Australians' access to the visas would effectively be halved.
It is understood Australian officials will encourage both sides of Congress to adopt the proposed change.
"We wanted very much to protect that 10,500 [figure] because we see an upward trajectory in takeup by Australians of the E3 visa, which was very hard fought during the FTA," said a source.
"They've come up with this solution, which I think is pretty neat."
Introduced in 2005 after Canberra and Washington negotiated a free trade agreement, the E3 visas provide a streamlined avenue for professionals with qualifications or high-level skills to work in the US for two years.
Department of Homeland Security figures show a steady increase in Australians winning E3 visas. In 2017 some 5657 were issued, up from 3946 in 2013.
The original draft bill introduced by Mr Sensenbrenner earlier this year would have enabled Irish citizens to apply concurrently with Australians for the limited pool of E3s, which are capped by number.
This could have resulted in future waves of Australian workers missing out.
The unused quota of E3s has drawn attention to the fact that many professional and highly skilled Australians may not be taking advantage of the program, and are effectively missing out on a US jobs and wages boom.
Experts say there is considerable demand in the US for highly-qualified workers in advertising, social media, consultancies and financial services.
Future demand for Australian workers may intensify on a dramatic surge in defence industry investment between the two countries in coming years.
New York-based immigration lawyer Zjantelle Cammisa-Markel - originally from Adelaide - said she often encounters Australians working in the UK or Europe who are unaware of the opportunities provided by the E3 visa class.
She said the category - which requires an offer of work from a US employer - can be obtained in as little as two or three weeks, and doesn't have the disadvantage of a more traditional business work visa that is subject to a lottery.
Ms Cammisa-Markel said there is a growing list of examples of Australians on E3 visas who have established businesses in the US and are now employing American workers.
One example, she said, was fintech firm Stash, which was founded by three Australians in 2015, and now employs more than 220 locals.
"It was these key Australians that were able to use the E3," she said.
Another example is Bluestone Lane, a fast-growing chain of coffee shops, which now has over 600 American employees.
"E3s are for educated people who are bright, fresh and smart - a lot of the new fintech companies are Australian-founded, and they're hiring tonnes of Americans," she said in an interview.
She insisted that employers in the US are also becoming more familiar with the category.
"They've noticed a cultural difference in the way Australians work, and that has benefited the productivity of American workplaces."
For those who apply, success rates appear high.
In 2017, when 5657 E3 visas were issued, only 668 were denied, according to Homeland Security data.
Fees are also relatively low, set at $US460 ($637 per applicant), and the visas can be renewed an indefinite number of times.
The category came about because under the FTA negotiated by the Howard government, Australia granted Americans uncapped access to its business visa program.
Because visa numbers are capped by law in the US, Republicans offered a program with a limit of 15,000. Negotiations with Democrats at the time, saw that figure reduced to the current level.