U.S. President George Bush will send a proposal to Congress to ease visa requirements for Latvian citizens wanting to visit America.
Bush, visiting Rīga during the NATO defense alliance summit, announced his plan Nov. 28 after visiting with Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga.
“She is deeply concerned that the people of Latvia aren’t able to travel to the United States as freely as she would like,” Bush said in a joint appearance with Vīķe-Freiberga after their discussions.
Latvian officials have been pushing for almost two years to have the United States ease visa restrictions. Since 1996, U.S. citizens have been able to enter Latvia with just a passport, but Latvian citizens wishing to visit the United States still need to apply for a visa and pay a USD 100 fee.
In Washington, D.C., Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in statement that easing visa restrictions would come with increase security requirements.
“We envision a secure travel authorization system that will allow us to receive data about travelers from countries before they get on the plane,” Chertoff said. “Countries that are willing to assist the United States in doing effective checks on travelers could be put on track to enter the program soon. For countries seeking admission to the Visa Waiver Program, this would be an opportunity to set a standard that will be applied to the program generally.”
Latvian Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks welcomed Bush’s readiness to address the visa issue, the Foreign Ministry said in a press release. At the same time, it reminded Latvian citizens traveling to the United States to observe U.S. visa regulations.
The closest Latvia and other new European Union members have come to gaining visa waivers for their citizens is in legislation passed in May by the U.S. Senate. The Senate’s version of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 included an amendment that would grant visa waiver for EU countries that provide material support for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although Latvia has troops stationed in both countries, the number falls short of what qualified as “material support” in the Senate’s bill: the equivalent of a battalion, or from 300 to 1,000 military personnel.
Although the bill had bipartisan support in the Senate as well as the backing of Bush, it is stalled in the House of Representatives.
Nearly 12,000 nonimmigrants from Latvia, including about 5,400 tourists, were admitted to the United States during 2005, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
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