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Massachusetts senator pushes bill for Irish work visas

By Rose Arce, CNN
March 17, 2012 -- Updated 0029 GMT (0829 HKT)
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, is working on getting more visas for Irish immigrants.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, is working on getting more visas for Irish immigrants.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Scott Brown backs bill for 10,500 special work visas for the Irish
  • Brown represents Massachusetts, home to many Americans of Irish descent
  • Brown's bill has been blocked by a fellow Republican who wants the bill changed

(CNN) -- The luck of the Irish may not be enough to push ahead special legislation introduced by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, to grant 10,500 special work visas for Irish immigrants.

Brown proposed the legislation in the midst of a neck-and-neck re-election battle in Massachusetts, which has the highest percentage of Americans of Irish descent. Brown is serving out the term of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was extremely popular with Irish-Americans because of his work on the Irish peace process.

Brown has predicted that his legislation would "pop" soon, in plenty of time for St. Patrick's Day marches that are magnets for Northeast politicians.

"The Irish economy crashed in 2008. People have come and overstayed visas. The Irish-American vote here is substantial," said Hugh Meehan, an Irish-American businessman in Boston. "This would be welcome relief and a recognition of the strong ties between Massachusetts and Ireland."

But Numbers USA, a conservative organization that supports reducing immigration, is lobbying hard against the bill, questioning why the United States would bring in skilled foreign workers to compete with U.S. citizens in the midst of a recession.

Roy Beck of Numbers USA called Brown's bill an election-year ploy to gain favoritism for one ethnic group. "What about Mexicans? What about Asians and Africans?" he said. "There is no reason why we should give this privilege."

The unemployment rate in Massachusetts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 6.9%. The unemployment rate in Ireland is 14.2%. The renewable visas Brown's legislation seeks would expire every two years.

The bill is also opposed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that typically sides with Republicans on immigration issues. It derided Brown's proposal as a throwback to the days when immigration was based on national origin.

In addition, America's Voice, which calls itself non-partisan organization, said that while it supports reform of immigration laws it has called into question the motivations behind giving a special visa status to Irish nationals.

On illegal immigration issues, which largely affect immigrants from Central and South America, Brown has been in line with his party. He has spoken against creating magnets for illegal immigration and has opposed the DREAM Act, which would grant permanent residency to college graduates who entered the United States illegally as children.

But, in an e-mail statement to CNN, Brown's office said his E3 visa legislation was different.

"For decades, the Irish have been unfairly shut out by our immigration laws. In an effort to increase visa prospects and maintain the close bond between the United States and Ireland, Sen. Brown is working in a bipartisan way to add the Irish E3 program to larger, House-passed visa legislation that benefits several other countries."

In a recent editorial, the Boston Globe said Irish immigrants have already been given ample favoritism.

"Brown argues that Ireland deserves special visas because changes in U.S. immigration policy have disproportionately limited the numbers of Irish workers for decades. But Ireland has often benefited from temporary exemptions. In 1986, Rep. Brian J. Donnelly, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed for a visa lottery that awarded 4,161 visas to Irish applicants out of the first 10,000. In the 1990s, Rep. Bruce Morrison, a Connecticut Democrat, created a program that gave out 120,000 green cards -- 48,000 reserved for Irish applicants, whose undocumented immigrants had been left out of an earlier amnesty program."

Brown's Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, said the visa system is badly broken. "We need to reform the visa system for talented Irish men and women coming to this country, and more generally we need to reform the visa system as a whole," she said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, introduced legislation in the House in November that would eliminate per-country caps for employment-based immigration applications from countries with large backlogs like China and India. It would also grant visa waivers to undocumented Irish immigrants, a move widely unpopular with Republicans.

Brown's standalone Senate bill on E3 visas for the Irish, S.2005, followed in December with no provision for undocumented immigrants. Brown's bill was added to Schumer's broader proposal, which eliminated the provision for undocumented immigrants. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, placed a hold on this bill when it came over to the Senate.

Beth Levine, communications director for Grassley, said he has now extended an offer to move the Brown bill forward.

"An up or down vote on Sen. Brown's Irish visa bill would be acceptable to Sen. Grassley with some modifications dealing with the skill level of those receiving an E3 visa, the current visa program the visas would be allotted from, and the inclusion of a sunset on the program," Levine wrote in an e-mail. "Sen. Grassley's staff is still discussing modifications with the sponsors of the bill."

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