New York Senator Charles Schumer vowed last week that if Congress passes a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, it will include a special provision to allow more than 10,500 Irish citizens to come here each year to legally live and work under a new E-3 visa.

Speaking to the Irish media on a conference call last Friday, the day after an amendment by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley to kill the provision in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill failed, Schumer said he’s determined to ensure that Irish citizens will be able to legally come to the U.S. once again thanks to the “Schumer visas.”

“The Schumer visas are going to be a part of the immigration bill that I am going to be very proud of,” he said.

“It has been a lifelong goal of mine to make sure that we have a permanent program for Irish immigration, not one that’s there for a few years and then expires which has occurred previously,” he added, referring to the previous Donnelly and Morrison Irish visa programs.

“I think [the Schumer program] is a better program than any of the others, the Donnelly visa, the Morrison visa … unlike other Irish visa programs which I helped pass, this is permanent so we won’t have to come back and keep doing it.”

The provision to expand the current E-3 visa rules is included in page 734 of the comprehensive reform bill authored by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate.  

E-3 visas are currently only available to citizens of Australia and allow for holders and their spouses to work in the U.S. for two years.  The visas are renewable indefinitely, and applicants must be coming to work in a “specialty occupation” that requires at least a bachelor’s degree.

However, Schumer’s expanded E-3 provision in the Senate bill greatly broadens visa availability for the Irish, who only need to possess the equivalent of a high school degree or, in the previous five years, two years of work experience in a field that requires that as a minimum.

“This is a program that brings in Irish citizens of every level of education, so it’s just not limited to the very high end people,” Schumer said.

“The proposal has bipartisan support and was agreed to by the Gang of Eight,” whose members also include Republicans John McCain of Arizona, who has led past immigration reform drives in the Senate, and Marco Rubio of Florida, whose support is seen as crucial for getting more conservative members to back the reform effort.   

Grassley feels the Irish don’t need a special avenue to legally come to the U.S., Schumer said.

“I explained to him that it’s one of the largest groups in America that really can’t avail themselves of the [current] immigration law, because so many of the Irish came in several generations ago and don’t have immediate family members here,” Schumer added. 

As the Grassley amendment was easily defeated during Senate Judiciary Committee deliberations on the comprehensive bill, Schumer is “pretty certain” that his Irish E-3 visa will survive when the bill arrives on the Senate floor for a full member vote next month.

“The plan is to finish up work on comprehensive reform in the Judiciary Committee [this] week,” Schumer said. “And then begin the first week of June and debate it on the floor.  Speaker [Harry] Reid has given us that assurance.”

However, when the debate moves to the more conservative House the prospects for comprehensive reform remain uncertain, Schumer cautioned.

“The danger is twofold,” he said. “One, someone tries to take [the E-3 provision] out in the House, although we have good support in the House from members on both sides of the aisle."

“But second, that we don’t get an immigration bill in general. Obviously this is part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform . . . the greatest danger to this not becoming law is that comprehensive reform, which has not passed for many years, won’t pass.”

Schumer says the comprehensive bill has a better than 50-50 chance of becoming law, “but not that much better.”  

Should the Irish E-3 visa be eliminated in the House, Schumer vowed to re-insert the provision during a final House-Senate conference when both bodies come together to craft the final bill.  “It’s a very high priority for me,” he said.

Though he didn’t put a firm timeframe on House action, Schumer is hopeful that a bill will pass by late summer or early fall. 

In the meantime, he urged Irish Americans across the country to actively lobby members of Congress to support the Gang of Eight bill.

“They should let their congressmen and senators know that they want comprehensive reform for two reasons – first it’s good for America, and second there are provisions that help the Irish. Please gear up now and tell everybody how important it is to keep the Schumer visas in the bill,” he urged.

The Irish, Schumer said, have played a vital role in bringing the comprehensive immigration debate to the forefront.  

“They have been strong in pushing comprehensive reform not just for themselves but for the entire immigrant community,” he added.  

“But there are lots of people opposed to comprehensive reform.”

Schumer is chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee. He said that he’s taken guidance from his predecessor, the late Senator Edward Kennedy.

“One of the things he always instructed me in was to make sure we took care of the Irish,” Schumer revealed. 

“So I said yesterday when our [provision] was ratified that Ted Kennedy’s spirit is hovering over this bill.”

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, Senator Schumer and Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Schumer’s office in Washington, D.C. in March.