In an effort to earn visa-free travel privileges for Latvian citizens wanting to visit the United States, the American Latvian Association is calling on Latvian-Americans to urge their federal lawmakers to support two bills under consideration in Congress.
The ALA issued a “call to action” on Oct. 19 urging passage of similar Senate and House of Representatives bills—S. 653 and H.R. 1543—that could ease Latvia’s path into the Visa Waiver Program. Both bills would lift the “rate of refusal” threshold that has held back a number of Eastern and Central European countries’ admission to the program, instead allowing the federal government to consider consistent progress in reducing the number of visa refusals.
Embassy officials reject one in five requests by Latvian citizens for U.S. visas.
Citizens of Latvia and other Eastern European countries got a small boost with passage of the Implementing the 9/11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007, which became law in August. One provision of the law lowered the threshold for admittance to the visa-waiver program by setting the acceptable rate of refusal for nonimmigrant visas to 10 percent during the previous fiscal year. Before, a country’s rate of refusal for U.S. visas had to be 3 percent or less.
That did not bode well for Latvia, Lithuania and a number of other countries where the rate of refusal remains well above 10 percent.
“Because of the refusal rate provisions,” the ALA said in an e-mailed announcement, “hundreds of thousands of people from allied countries will be denied the chance to visit the U.S. for business or for pleasure, to learn what a great and free country America is.”
Latvia’s rate of refusal in fiscal 2006 was 21.6 percent, according to the U.S. State Department, while Lithuania’s was 27.7 percent. Of the three Baltic countries, only Estonia is under the new threshold at 7.1 percent.
The ALA’s announcement, citing State Department data, said Latvia’s rate for fiscal year 2007 has dropped to 11.8 percent—still above the new threshold.
“This is an insulting and degrading position for Latvia and Lithuania who since the first day of their independence have been strong and loyal allies of the U.S.,” the ALA announcement continues. “The two are members of NATO and the European Union, have viable, open democratic governments and free market economies, and are the fastest growing economies in the world.”
S. 653, titled the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act, calls for expanding the visa waiver program to countries, such as Latvia, that are allies in the war on terrorism.
Among other provisions, the bill allows the Department of Homeland Security flexibility with the visa waiver program if a country seeking the waiver meets four provisions, including “a sustained reduction in visa refusal rates for aliens from the country and conditions exist to continue such reduction.”
The Senate bill was introduced on Feb. 15 and referred to the Judiciary Committee, where it remains.
The similar House bill, titled the Visa Waiver Modernization Act, was introduced March 15 and referred to the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.
Latvian officials for several years have been negotiating the visa waiver issue with their U.S. counterparts.
Negotiations also have been held with Canadian officials. Latvian and Lithuanian citizens still need visas to travel to Canada, but Estonians do not.
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