By: Laura D. Francis of Bloomberg Law

Potentially thousands of professionals from Ireland would be eligible for a special skilled guestworker visa under a bill passed by the House Nov. 28.

H.R. 7164, introduced by Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.), would add Ireland to the E-3 visa, a workaround for the H-1B visa that’s available solely to workers from Australia. It was approved in the House by voice vote.

The bill would retain the current 10,500 E-3 cap, but Irish workers would be entitled to the difference between 10,500 and the number of visas approved for Australians in the prior fiscal year. Australians currently only use about half of the 10,500 visas they’re allotted.

Spouses and children wouldn’t count toward the visa cap.

The measure differs from an earlier version (H.R. 7100) Sensenbrenner introduced in October, which didn’t give Australians first crack at the visas.

Gaining access to H-1B visas in recent years has been difficult, as demand for the temporary visa for “specialty occupations” far outstrips supply. There are 65,000 H-1B visas available each year, with an additional 20,000 reserved for workers with advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the visa program, received 190,098 petitions for the visas this year.

The agency also is moving forward with a proposal to change the H-1B lottery to allow for an employer pre-registration process. It also could rework the lottery to ensure that more visas are awarded to workers with advanced degrees.

USCIS Director Francis Cissna has indicated that he wants a regulation finalized by the time the next H-1B lottery rolls around in April. A proposed regulation hasn’t yet been released for public comment.

Sensenbrenner’s bill would allow Irish workers to get around the regular H-1B cap and have their own separate pool of visas for the same type of high-skilled jobs. Employers that hire Irish workers on E-3 visas would have to participate in the E-Verify electronic employment verification system.

Ireland is working on a reciprocal visa for U.S. workers in that country, Sensenbrenner said.