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Ryan pushes for thousands of Irish visas before leaving office

POLITICO logo POLITICO 12/16/2018 By Ted Hesson
Paul Ryan wearing a suit and tie: Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during the Friends of Ireland luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on March 15. © Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during the Friends of Ireland luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on March 15.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is leaving Congress with a grateful nod to his Irish ancestors.

A bill pushed by Ryan, whose family fled famine-ravaged Ireland in 1851, could provide Irish nationals with thousands of additional U.S. work visas each year.

The legislation cleared the House Nov. 28 on an uncontested voice vote and is increasingly likely to clear the Senate next week, a GOP aide told POLITICO.

But the measure has stirred opposition from the alt-right publication Breitbart, which dubbed the visa program “amnesty for Irish lobbies“ and said it would take jobs away from U.S. college graduates.

The bill would give the Irish access to unused E-3 visas, which currently are available only to Australians in "specialty occupations" that require a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. In return, Ireland would offer additional work visas to Americans, among other concessions.

“The idea here is that this is going to be reciprocal,” said John Deasy, an Irish special envoy to the U.S. “We think it’s important that the flows in the workplace continue between the two countries.”

A single GOP senator is blocking the legislation, the GOP aide said. That represents apparent progress from earlier this month, when six Republicans had put a hold on the bill, according to an Irish-American news website.

Passage of the Irish visa bill would be an unexpected but not illogical conclusion to Paul Ryan’s speakership. He worked behind the scenes in 2013 and 2014 on a bill to overhaul the legal immigration system, an effort that eventually died under then-Speaker John Boehner.

Ryan maintains close ties with Irish officials, and the 48-year-old Wisconsinite said earlier this year that sometime after his 60th birthday he would like to become the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

The next opportunity for the visa bill to clear the Senate will be Monday, when lawmakers return to grapple with a spending bill to prevent a partial government shutdown.

Even if the measure clears the Senate, though, it will need the support of President Donald Trump, whose position on the bill is unclear. A White House spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

The bill would draw from the annual pool of 10,500 work visas in the E-3 program, which was created as part of a 2005 immigration law. Under the measure, Irish nationals would have access to any visas that remained unused by Australians in the preceding fiscal year.

The State Department issued 5,657 E-3 visas to Australians in fiscal year 2017. At that rate, nearly 5,000 visas would remain for Irish professionals.

The Irish government appears willing to offer more than just employment visas to cement the deal, according to a document circulated among Senate offices and obtained by POLITICO.

In addition to reciprocal work permits, the proposal suggests changes to make it easier for qualifying Americans to retire in Ireland.

The document also floats an expansion of academic exchange programs and an extension of a reciprocal “working holiday” visa available to U.S. and Irish nationals ages 18 to 30.

As part of the proposal, U.S. nationals on holiday visas could begin work immediately after entering Ireland, bypassing the current registration process, according to Deasy, the Irish envoy.

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