Some countries lobby for more in visa race

Eric Lipton / New York Times News Service /


WASHINGTON — 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 and congressional leaders for special treatment. And the government of Poland squeezed Vice President Joe Biden and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill for its own favor, 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 give 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 United States. Poland got language that would allow it to join the list of nations whose citizens can travel to the United States as tourists without visas. And Canadians successfully pushed for a change that would permit its citizens who are 55 and older and not working to stay in the United States 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, according to required disclosure reports. Other nations generally relied on their own ambassadors and embassy staff to make the push, meaning there is no way to track how much has been spent on the effort.

The deals are already drawing some criticism, particularly from those who worry that some of the provisions — in addition to already increased annual visa allotments available generally — 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. “Every country is going to try to negotiate its own carve-out.”

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 U.S. interests. Loosening the tourist visa requirements, for example, would result in hundreds of thousands of additional visitors spending billions of dollars each year, supporters say.