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Taoiseach hoping to reach new deal on US work visa

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is seeking to reach an agreement with US President Barack Obama that would allow thousands more Irish people to work in the US.

It comes after a deal was agreed with Australia, which has allowed 10,000 of its citizens to live and work in the US for two years in return for access to Australia for US citizens.

Mr Cowen was speaking as it emerged that talks between the two governments on setting up a similar programme for Irish and US citizens were under way.

"We would like to get the model the Australians obtained, where people from both countries could come for a more prolonged period and work," he told RTE's 'Week in Politics'.

Last year, the US agreed that 20,000 Irish citizens could apply for year-long working visits. In return, 5,000 US citizens were allowed to come to Ireland.

The new 'E3 visa' deal is separate from discussions on the issue of the undocumented Irish, who are being detained in jail for up to 56 days prior to being deported and also have to share cells with convicted criminals. This has heightened fears among the estimated 50,000 Irish people living in the US who do not have visas.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has called on Mr Cowen to bring up the issue with President Obama during their White House meeting tomorrow.

"These aren't serious criminals, they are people who have been detained for having incorrect documentation," he said.

The Irish ambassador to the US, Michael Collins, has met US government representatives to express concern about the lengthy imprisonment of Irish citizens prior to deportation.

Since the tightening up of immigration laws in the wake of September 11 attacks, 304 Irish people have been deported for not having a valid visa to stay in the US, including 48 last year.

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Mr Kenny said many of the undocumented Irish were traumatised, particularly because many had to serve sentences with convicted criminals.

The revelations will cast the spotlight back on to President Obama, who promised during his election campaign to deal with the 12 million undocumented workers in the US.

The Taoiseach has also pledged to deliver "a long-term solution for the undocumented" -- although no specific details on how to deal with this long-running thorny issue were revealed.

During the past 10 years, the Irish Government has deported 12 US citizens who did not have valid visas to stay here. Its protestations about the jailing of undocumented Irish workers will also be undermined by the fact that illegal immigrants from non-EU countries are also held in prisons here prior to their deportation.

Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin said he was aware concerns had been expressed concerning the length of detention of Irish citizens in the US prior to deportation.

"While the figures available to us indicate that the numbers of undocumented Irish being detained and deported have not increased significantly in recent years, I understand the stress which detention and deportation cause is very real," he said.

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