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.

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.

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