Saturday, June 16, 2007

Congress debates stricter visa rules

Congress debates stricter visa rules
By Brian Knowlton
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: June 15, 2007

WASHINGTON: Measures moving through Congress, including a requirement for travelers in some countries to register travel plans online 48 hours before departure, have raised fears in Europe of disruptions in the trans-Atlantic flow of business and leisure travel.

The requirement, proposed by the Homeland Security Department, would apply to people in 27 mostly West European countries who are now able to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without visas. It would also apply to new entrants to the same so-called Visa Waiver Program, a status sought by 12 countries, many of them eastern and central European states new to the European Union that have placed enormous stock on getting in - for business, tourism, family links and plain national prestige.

The Polish ambassador, for example, said his country needed "proof that this is a fair relationship."

"I'm afraid that if we fail, we may lose a generation," Ambassador Janusz Reiter said.

Poles, who can now travel and work across the EU, would turn against the United States, traditionally regarded as a friend, Reiter said.

The existing European members of the waiver program are not thrilled by the 48-hour requirement - a potential hardship for business people, who often change travel plans at the last minute - nor by some other tightening of standards for their airports and passport handling.

Nathalie Loiseau, the spokeswoman at the French Embassy in Washington, said that European officials, with full French support, were working with Congress to help "enhance trans-Atlantic relations and not to put more obstacles before people who wish to travel to the U.S."

But a U.S. official this week said that the online registration would be a "convenient" process, taking five minutes or less, and causing no one to miss a flight.

While the mechanics of the online registration are yet to be set, said Russ Knocke, the Department of Homeland Security spokesman, in practice, online registration could be done less than 48 hours before departure.

"The concept is that whenever the ticket is purchased, there's a quick 'ping' to give us advance notice on who's going to travel to the U.S."

Earlier information on travelers' identities, he said, should mean fewer flights delayed - or even turned back in midair - for security reasons.

"Whether done on the Internet from someone's office while packing up the laptop to catch a flight that day, or when they're in the hotel the night before and need to change their flight and come home early, it can still be done," Knocke said. The process would involve sharing no more data than from a passport, he said.

U.S. officials have long seen the waiver program as politically vulnerable.

If someone entering the country from a visa-waiver country should launch a terror attack, Knocke said, "the rush in Congress to shut this program down altogether would be fast and furious."

Thus the tougher standards set by the proposed change could make it easier to bring in new countries, he said. "What we're working with Congress to accomplish is to strengthen the integrity of the overall program through, for example, the electronic travel authorization process, so the program itself is stronger and potentially more inclusive."

Along with online registration, the updated program would require new and existing member countries to improve data-sharing; more rigorously report lost and stolen passports (not just blank passports); and guarantee they will repatriate nationals if those people are ordered out of the United States.

"It's really a 21st-century model," said James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation analyst who specializes in homeland security. "It'll all be done electronically and biometrically. And it really doesn't compromise your privacy."

But tied in to legislation that has passed the Senate and been introduced in the House is the question of the entry standards for countries eager to join the program.

Current members are judged as among the most reliable U.S. travel and business partners. Membership requires, among other things, a record of extremely low rejection by U.S. consular officials of the visa applications from a country's nationals - less than 3 percent of the total.

In the past, a low total mainly reflected a small probability of a country's nationals overstaying visas. But since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, terrorism concerns have played a growing role.

"Most of the refusal rates have gone up since 9/11 because consular officers have been much more cautious," said Carafano.

The new EU member countries tend to have rejection rates far higher than the 3 percent threshold. Estonia had a rejection rate last year of 7.1 percent; the Czech Republic 9.4 percent; Hungary 12.7 percent; and Poland 26 percent, according to
Both the Senate bill and a House version seek to give Homeland Security greater flexibility. Candidate countries would merely have to show a "sustained reduction in visa refusal rates," as Poland, for example, says it can do.

But an amendment to the Senate bill would set 10 percent as the maximum refusal rate for member countries. The House version proposes no such change.

The European Union has urged Congress to extend the waiver program to all EU citizens based on individual eligibility without regard to nationality.

The candidate countries say they support tighter security measures but see the refusal rate standard as arbitrary. "Even American experts recognize that granting a visa is an arbitrary decision" based on how an applicant acts during a consular interview, said Daniela Gitman, the Romanian chargé d'affaires in Washington. "The way they sweat, the way they discuss. This is not a good way" to decide.

Entry to the program, said Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu of Romania during a Washington visit, "for us will be a sign of appreciation for our participation in the war against terror."

Reiter put it differently: "This is not so much about practical importance. This is much more about symbolism, about the emotional side of the relationship.

"The asymmetry we are having between the U.S. and our countries, including Poland, is becoming more and more an instrument for those who say this is not a fair relationship," he said.

Applicant countries say U.S. officials are living in the past if they are worried about a flood of East Europeans entering - and not leaving.

"Many people in the U.S. seem to believe it is a natural instinct of every Pole, Hungarian or Slovak to want to stay in the U.S.," Reiter said. "This is totally wrong today."

The countries now in the waiver program are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain.


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