Latvia and six other countries will join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program next month, President George Bush told an Oct. 17 meeting of foreign ambassadors at the White House.
The president said his administration is using its new authority to admit Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and South Korea to the program that allows citizens of those countries to enter the U.S. with just a passport.
“For years the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines and pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States,” Bush said, according to his press office. “These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around.”
At present, a total of 27 countries, mostly in Western Europe, are part of the program, meaning their citizens can enter the United States with just a passport. U.S. citizens already are able to enter Latvia without a visa.
In Rīga, Foreign Minister Māris Riekstiņš expressed satisfaction with the announcement.
“This sort of decision has both political and symbolic meaning that without a doubt attests to the United States’ trust in Latvia,” Riekstiņš said, according to a foreign ministry press release.
Bush’s announcement confirmed rumors that had circulated for the past week that Latvia and other countries would soon be invited to join the Visa Waiver Program.
The U.S. State Department on Oct. 8 reported that the percentage of visa applications rejected by the American embassy in Rīga dropped to 8.3 percent during the past year. Under terms of the Visa Waiver Program, countries must have a refusal rate of no more than 10 percent.
Latvia also last month completed the waiver program’s consultative process when it signed an agreement with the United States on combatting serious crime. Latvia became the first to complete the process among a number of Eastern European nations working to join the Visa Waiver Program. The nations joining the Visa Waiver Program also had to institute several security measures, including the use of new tamper-proof biometric passports.
While the news is positive for Latvia, the process by which it and a number of other countries have been encouraged under the Bush Administration’s “visa waiver road map” has been critized by the U.S. General Accounting Office.
The GAO, the U.S. government’s own watchdog agency, issued a report Sept. 24 that questions why countries such as Latvia, whose visa refusal rate earlier had been above 10 percent, were fast-tracked for admission to the waiver program by the Department of Homeland Security while other nations with lower rates saw little progress. For 2007, Latvia’s refusal rate was 11.8 percent.
“The executive branch is moving aggressively to expand the Visa Waiver Program by the end of 2008, but, in doing so, DHS has not followed a transparent process,” according to the report.
As a result, information about the program could be confusing. For example, State Department officials told the GAO that it could be difficult to explain to countries such as Croatia, Israel and Taiwan—whose visa refusal rates already were lower than 10 percent last year—why the DHS was not negotiating with them about admission to the Visa Waiver Program but was talking to countries such as Latvia, where the refusal rate was higher.
Under DHS standard operating procedures, according to the GAO report, the process for admitting a country to the Visa Waiver Program begins with a nomination by the State Department. DHS then is to complete a comprehensive review of the candidate country and make a recommendation to Congress.
While the new members of the Visa Waiver Program were not nominated by the State Department, all of them had signed “road map” memoranda of understanding with the U.S. government—but that’s also not standard procedure, the GAO report added.
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