By Susan Falvella Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
Washington — 12,000 Irish nationals from disadvantaged areas on both sides of the border are to be offered the chance to get a new kick-start in life on American soil.
A bill passed unanimously by both houses of Congress last week promises the visas, each lasting three years, to successful applicants 35 years and under from areas deemed disadvantaged in Northern Ireland and six border area counties of the Republic: Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal.
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law within days. After that, distribution regulations for the visas – already being dubbed the "Walsh Visas" after Friends of Ireland chairman Rep. James Walsh, – will be drawn up by the Justice and State Departments.
Reservations over the bill had been expressed by both departments and by figures in the Clinton White House in the runup to final approval. As a rule, government departments are not well disposed towards single country visa bills.
However, the obvious unanimity in Congress, a rarity these days, was sufficient to smooth out these concerns. Also, Undersecretary of Labor Kitty Higgins is understood to have assuaged fears that the visas would somehow take away jobs from Americans.
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The temporary visa scheme will last for three years with 4,000 visas being made available to successful applicants in each year.
Each 4,000 annual total will include any spouses or children of successful primary applicants.
The bill, which activates the "Irish Peace Process Cultural And Training Program," was passed by the Senate on Thursday night. Twenty four hours earlier it had been approved unanimously by the House of Representatives.
The bill does not provide greencards and neither does it include a waiver for undocumented Irish already in the U.S. Also, the 12,000 visas of three years duration is less a total than the 50,000 of five years duration first proposed by Irish immigration lobbyists.
Still, the very survival of the amended program was in doubt up to the last minute due to pressure of business, not least the debate over possible impeachment of President Clinton, and the fact that Congress was heading for pre-election recess. Against this backdrop, additional last minute uncertainty arose when Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Immigration SubCommittee, and Senator Spencer Abraham, a Republican from Michigan, disagreed over the question of offsetting the "Walsh Visas" against the existing annual allocation of 60,000 H-2B temporary work visas. The issue was resolved – the visas will be offset against the H-2Bs – and the joint House/Senate bill was passed by the Senate Thursday under fast track "suspension" rules.
With safe passage of the bill assured there was no shortage of praise from and for those considered essential to its success.
"I hope some wide-eyed idealists will come and take advantage of this opportunity," said Rep. Walsh, whose name is the most closely linked to the measure.
"They will learn something valuable here and with the success of the peace process have something to go back to," Walsh said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
Walsh singled out Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Lamar Smith for particular mention.
D’Amato had provided "outstanding leadership in the Senate and we couldn’t have got it through without his extra effort," Walsh said.
"The Speaker, by the power of his office and his understanding of the issue and the historical context, gave us a substantial push and needed encouragement," Walsh said in reference to Gingrich.
He described Lamar Smith as a "tremendous ally who deserves credit for getting this bill through.".
For his own part, Walsh said he was very pleased that the bill had received such broad bipartisan support.
"I know this legislation will provide long lasting social and economic benefits and I am very proud of the efforts made by so many people to make it a reality."
Brian O’Dwyer, chairman of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in New York, paid tribute to D’Amato and Walsh for fostering a bill that would have a significant impact on the peace process.
"I want to particularly thank Congressman Walsh for his skill and diligence in bringing about this bill. Without him there would be no law.
"I know in the future twelve thousand young men and women will be the recipients of ‘Walsh Visas.’ Knowing Jim Walsh, that will be satisfaction enough, but he should also know that the Irish American community remains enormously grateful and proud of him," O’Dwyer said.
The Irish Immigration Reform Movement said it roundly applauded passage of the bill.
"At a moment in history when Congress may be at its most divided, IIRM is particularly encouraged to witness genuine bipartisan support on the question of peace in Ireland, the group said.
Speaker Gingrich, in a statement, said that it was important for the United States, at the cusp of a new era in Ireland, to offer what support, advice and assistance it could.
"It is difficult to heal the wounds of internal strife, as America learned more than 130 years ago. As a true melting pot of great diversity, America knows at first-hand that knowledge is the key to tolerance," Gingrich said.
Sen. D’Amato said he was pleased that his colleagues had approved bipartisan legislation that would continue efforts to help nurture the peace process.
Rep. Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said that the visas would help solidify the lasting peace and justice that all wanted.
Senator Spencer Abraham, whose last minute disagreement with Lamar Smith caused some nerves to fray, said he was pleased to see the measure passed.
Abraham, who is generally sympathetic to pro-immigration groups, urged President Clinton to quickly sign the bill into law.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney paid tribute to the role of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in promoting the bill. "It is a credit to their strong leadership that this bill passed," she said.
Rita O’Hare, Sinn Féin’s representative to the U.S., said it was essential that visa winners later use the experience gained in America in jobs back in Ireland.