ALA urges action on visa waiver for Latvia

Latvia and other new European Union countries with troops in Iraq or Afghanistan should all be included in the U.S. visa waiver program, the American Latvian Association says in an “action alert” urging its members to contact U.S. senators before they take a crucial vote on immigration reform.

An amendment to the proposed immigration reform bill would allow citizens of Poland to enter the United States without a visa for up to 90 days, but would shut out other new EU nations from the waiver program, Valdis V. Pavlovskis, director of the ALA’s Public Affairs Bureau, said in an e-mail circulated May 23.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, on May 16 introduced the amendment to S. 2611, the proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Under the amendment (S.A. 4000) members of the European Union that provide at least a battalion’s worth of military support to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom would qualify for the visa waiver program. The amendment describes a battalion as 300 to 1,000 troops.

Under the amendment, according to the ALA, only Poland would qualify for the visa waiver program. The visa waiver would be probationary for two years. Latvia, which according to the Ministry of Defense has about 120 troops stationed in Iraq and 29 in Afghanistan, would not qualify.

“This blatantly disparages the commitment and sacrifice of the Baltic countries to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,” Pavlovskis said in the e-mail.

The Senate agreed to the amendment on May 17.

Latvia since 2004 has been negotiating to allow its citizens to enter the United States without a visa. Latvian citizens seeking to travel to the United States must pay a nonrefundable fee of USD 100 as part of the visa application process. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has pleaded with Latvian citizens who do travel to the United States to observe their visa restrictions. To not do so could hobble efforts toward approval of visa-free travel.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are able to enter Latvia with only their passports.

The House of Representatives passed its version of bill, known as the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, in December. That legislation includes no expansion of the visa waiver program.

The Senate is likely to vote on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act before its recess on May 27, according to media reports. If passed, the legislation would move to a conference committee and then to President George W. Bush for his signature.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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