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Walsh visa bill hits snag, to go down to wire

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Susan Falvella Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The plan to make available thousands of non-immigrant "transition visas" to applicants in Northern Ireland and six border counties in the Irish Republic hit a snag this week.

Differences over just how the 12,000 proposed visas will be given out stalled efforts in Congress to secure passage of the necessary legislation through the House of Representatives and Senate by Tuesday.

It now looks as if the legislation will go down to the wire, with Congress due to go into recess on Friday, Oct. 9.

"It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys out there," said one House staffer who has been working on the bill.

The bill had been expected to reach the House floor under so-called "suspension" rules by Tuesday. That would have entailed a voice vote and quick movement to the Senate.

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The House was considered friendly territory for the "U.S./Northern Ireland Cultural and Training Program Act of 1998," after supporters, led by the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jim Walsh, had reached a deal with GOP Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee.

Smith, who generally opposes any increase in immigration numbers, had been the prime foe in the House up to that point. His opposition did succeed in watering down the ambitions of bill backers, who had wanted to see 50,000 visas lasting five years each.

In the end, the process of attrition in the House had reduced this to 12,000 visas valid for 36 months and allocated 4,000 at a time over a three-year span.

As soon as Smith faded as an opponent, backers such as the Irish Immigration Reform Movement and Emerald Isle Immigration Center were faced with a new foe in Sen. Spencer Abraham, a Republican from Michigan.

According to Eamonn Dornan of Emerald Isle, Abraham wants to offset the proposed Irish visas against the existing annual H2B temporary work visas allocation.

"There are over 60,000 of these H2B visas given out each year but only about 15,000 were taken up in the last batch. Abraham wants the Irish visas to come from this unused total," Dornan said.

Dornan and others are fearful that if the "Walsh Visas" are linked to the existing H2B scheme, other members of Congress, both opposed to and in favor of increased immigration, might attempt to add additional visa bills into this mix, thus immersing the Walsh Visa bill in an increasingly competitive, but ultimately limited, visa pool.

Supporters of the Irish package are now hoping that a deal can be reached with Abraham so as to ensure a voice vote in both the House and Senate by Friday. The campaign in the Senate is being fronted by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.

"This is not a problem over the visa itself. This is staffers up here not following through on what their bosses said they would support," the House staffer said.

One of the interesting lingual twists in the proposed bill, meanwhile, is that for the purposes of the specific legislation, Counties Louth, Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal are being considered part of "Northern Ireland."

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