The Senate begins its drive this week to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would offer legal status to millions of undocumented residents, and Irish activists working on the issue are confident that the bill’s E-3 visa provision which sets aside 10,500 renewable visas each year exclusively for Irish use will survive the debate intact.

On Tuesday afternoon the Senate voted by a wide margin, 82-15, to begin debate on S. 744, the bill authored by the so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan senators earlier this year. The bill emerged from the Judiciary Committee last month, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is hopeful that the full Senate will pass the measure before the July 4 recess.

However, the floor debate will be vigorous and a number of Senate members have already announced their intentions to offer amendments that would toughen border security and eliminate the eventual path to citizenship on offer for upwards of 11 million undocumented residents.

“I'll vote to debate it and for the opportunity to amend it, but in the days ahead there will need to be major changes to this bill if it's going to become law," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday before voting to open debate.

Members of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform have spent the past few days in Washington, D.C. meeting with legislators and drumming up support for S. 744 and its key Irish provision that was included at the specific request of Gang of Eight member Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

Senator Mark Daly from Ireland has also been lobbying on Capitol Hill, and joined ILIR President Ciaran Staunton for a number of key meetings with both House and Senate members.

“We met with a number of Republican staffers, including those working with Senators Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois,” Staunton told the Irish Voice.

“And here’s what we know – now is the time for Irish Americans across the country, but particularly in those states, to call their Senate offices and urge passage of the bill.”

Staunton and Daly met with Schumer on Tuesday afternoon after the Senate vote, and the New York senator was pleased that floor debate will finally begin. “He told us he was feeling good about the situation and very hopeful,” Staunton said.

While the immigration focus will remain in the Senate for the next few weeks, the more conservative House is also working on its own bill that will eventually have to be reconciled with anything that comes out of the Senate.

Staunton and Daly met with staff members representing more than 40 GOP House members in the past few days, including a sit-down with Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate last year who is expected to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Spending a half-hour with the Wisconsin House member offered Daly and Staunton the chance to press for immigration reform, and Ryan, they say, is on board.

“He gave us great time, spoke about his Irish roots a lot and definitely he feels like the time is right for immigration reform,” Staunton said.

“In fact we had a great reception from many GOP members.  In some cases, the positions that staffers outlined were much different than what’s on the member’s website, so we’re feeling optimistic.”

As far as the success of the E-3 program, Staunton says so far, so good. “It won’t come out of the Senate bill,” he said.

“Many other countries are in the bill, and we’re not making any apologies for Ireland being in it too. We’re pointing out how we were disadvantaged by the 1965 Act, and how that needs to be made right.”

On Tuesday President Obama gave his firm support to the Senate bill, and urged members to give approval even though the plan “isn’t perfect.”

“If you’re serious about actually fixing the system, then this is the vehicle to do it,” Obama said in a speech at the White House. “If you’re not serious about it, if you think that a broken system is the best America can do, then I guess it makes sense to try to block it.

“This bill isn’t perfect; it’s a compromise,” Obama said. “And going forward, nobody is going to get everything they want. Not Democrats, not Republicans, not me.”

On Wednesday, June 19 in Philadelphia, ILIR is hosting an informational meeting at the Commodore Barry Club. Visit the group’s Facebook page for more information.

“Basically we’re going to be telling everybody to get out there and become involved, and help us to get immigration reform now,” Staunton said.