Latvians citizens may have moved a tiny step closer to gaining visa-free travel privileges to the United States thanks to an agreement in Congress on improving homeland security. However, Latvian officials still have several hurdles to jump—including reducing the rate of refusal for U.S. visas to just 10 percent.
The U.S. Senate in an 85 to 8 vote on July 26 approved a conference report on the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, a wide-reaching bill that seeks to shore up homeland security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives followed on July 27, approving the conference report 371 to 40. President George Bush, despite having some objections over contents of the legislation, is expected to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.
As part of the bill, the Visa Waiver Program is modernized through several measures that eventually could lead to Latvian travelers gaining visa-free entry into the United States. Currently, only 27 countries are included in the program.
Among factors to be considered in allowing a country into the revamped Visa Waiver Program is whether the rate of refusal for nonimmigrant visas is not more than 10 percent during the previous full fiscal year. Under current law, the rate of refusal must be 3 percent or less. The new, higher threshold is balanced with tougher security measures.
In fiscal 2006, Latvia’s rate of refusal stood at 21.6 percent, according to U.S. State Department figures. Estonia’s was 7.1 percent, while Lithuania’s was 27.7 percent.
Both the Senate and House considered bills to implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations about homeland security. The Senate’s version, tagged S. 4, prevailed in the conference committee.
The legislation had the grudging support of the American Latvian Association, which the previous week issued an “action alert” asking Latvian-Americans to contact conference committee members to push for the visa waiver language. However, in June the ALA had said it favored another bill over the Senate’s version of the 9/11 Commission bill. The association, in a June 6 statement by ALA Director of Public Affairs Valdis Pavlovskis, objected to the rate of refusal language in the Senate bill.
“This is an excessively high rate and effectively excludes the Baltic countries and most of the new European Union countries from the program,” Pavlovskis wrote of the 10 percent barrier.
The ALA would have preferred H.R. 1543, the Visa Waiver Modernization Act. Introduced March 15 by Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the bill was referred March 19 to the Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism and has not been seen since. Rather than a specific rate of refusal figure, the bill called for evidence there is “sustained reduction in visa refusal rates for aliens from the country and conditions exist to continue such reduction.”
The original language of the Senate bill set no limits for the modernized Visa Waiver Program, but like H.R. 1543 sought sustained reduction in visa refusal rates. However, in February the Senate adopted an amendment proposed by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that imposed the 10 percent barrier.
Calling the Visa Waiver Program “the soft underbelly of our national security,” Feinstein told her colleagues in the Senate how several terrorists, including Zacarias Moussaoui (the “20th hijacker” of Sept. 11) and “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, could easily travel to the United States from France and the United Kingdom with just a passport.
She noted that 13 of the 19 countries that had signed Visa Waiver Roadmap agreements with the United States—including Latvia—had visa refusal rates well above 10 percent.
Latvia and the U.S. government in 2005 agreed to a roadmap to visa-free travel. Under the roadmap, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed to broaden its information campaign about requirements for travel to the United States, as well as to work closely with the U.S. embassy in Rīga to share information and review progress.
Latvia and six other Eastern and Central European nations have hired lobbyists Dutko Worldwide of Washington, D.C., to press their case in Congress. Latvia’s cost for the lobby firm is about LVL 15,000, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks has said one of the chief missions of new Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovičs is to see to it that Latvia gets accepted to the Visa Waiver Program.
Spokespersons for the ALA and the Embassy of Latvia in Washington were not available for comment.
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