In battle for US visas,countries put best foot forward

The government of South Korea hired a former CIA analyst,two White House veterans and a team of ex-congressional staff members to help secure a few paragraphs in the giant immigration Bill.

Written by New York Times | Washington | Published:May 14, 2013 12:08 am

The government of South Korea hired a former CIA analyst,two White House veterans and a team of ex-congressional staff members to help secure a few paragraphs in the giant immigration Bill.

The government of Ireland,during St Patrick’s Day festivities,appealed directly to President Barack Obama for special treatment. And the government of Poland squeezed Vice-President Joe Biden for its own favour,a pitch repeated at an embassy party last week featuring pirogi and three types of Polish ham.

Those countries,and others,succeeded in winning provisions in the fine print of the 867-page immigration Bill now before Congress that gives their citizens benefits not extended to most other foreigners.

Ireland and South Korea extracted measures that set aside for their citizens a fixed number of the highly sought special visas for guest workers seeking to come to the US. Poland got language that would allow it to join the list of nations whose citizens can travel to the US as tourists without visas. And Canadians successfully pushed for a change that would permit its citizens who are 55 and older to stay in the US without visas for as much as 240 days each year,up from the current 182.

South Korea alone has four lobbying firms in the campaign,paying them collectively at a rate that would total $1.7 million this year. Other nations generally relied on their own ambassadors to make the push.

The deals are already drawing some criticism,particularly from those who worry that some of the provisions could create an influx of foreigners large enough to undermine American workers. “This could turn into a stealth immigration policy,” said Ronil Hira,a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies the immigration system.

Indeed,lawmakers are already pushing to grant special benefits to others,including Tibet,Hong Kong and parts of Africa.

Advocates of the measures say they serve US interests. Loosening the tourist visa requirements,for example,would result in hundreds of thousands of visitors spending billions each year,

supporters say.

Senator Charles E Schumer,who was responsible in part for inserting the measures affecting Poland,Canada and Ireland into the legislation,defends them. “Each of these provisions makes individual sense on the merits,” a spokesman for the senator said.

The proposed foreign deals have drawn little scrutiny,but Senator Charles E Grassley and his staff are starting to raise questions about some of them,saying Americans deserve to understand the immigration package.

Some diplomats who worked for the carefully devised benefits had hoped to avoid such attention. “If we could stay below the radar,we would much prefer it,” one senior official in Washington said on the condition of anonymity.

Most of the language in the immigration package,created by a bipartisan group of eight senators,applies equally to citizens of any foreign nation. It calls for tougher border security and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the US. It also increases the number of visas for skilled workers to at least 110,000 annually. With uncertain support in the Senate and tough opposition in the House,the fate of the Bill is far from clear.

Jess T Ford,who examined border security issues for the Government Accountability Office until 2011,said the change could create a loophole leaving the US vulnerable to increased

illegal immigration.

“Once somebody comes in here as a tourist,you can’t keep track of them,” Ford said in an interview.

ERIC LIPTON

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