International Heral Tribune
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 24, 2007
WASHINGTON: American lawmakers are trying to handle a sensitive issue in relations with European countries by expanding a program that allows their citizens to travel to the United States without visas.
Even some of the countries that stand to benefit, however, are objecting that a bill passed in the Senate this week would be too restrictive. A milder version is being considered in the House, and the two would have to be reconciled for a final version to be passed.
President George W. Bush is scheduled to travel early next month to two of the countries seeking to join the program, Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush administration, which favors limited expansion of the program, would like to reward allies who have been supportive in the Iraq war and in anti-terrorism efforts.
At the same time, the administration worries that the visa-waiver program could make it easier for terrorists to enter the United States.
Under the Senate legislation, some citizens of the European Union’s 27 nations would probably still have to get visas before traveling to the United States.
The current program allows citizens from most countries in Western Europe and some from other parts of the world to enter the United States without visas, but it excludes many of the newer EU member states.
Under public pressure, the governments in those countries have been pressing the United States to make changes to ease travel and acknowledge their status in the West’s elite clubs, the EU and NATO.
“We want to get to the point where the first-class European allies won’t be treated as second class,” Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington, Rastislav Kacer, said in an interview.
A number of ambassadors whose countries are seeking entry to the program, including Lithuania’s envoy to Washington, Audrius Bruzga, said the onerous process of obtaining visas was undermining the American image in their countries.
“This issue dominates press coverage of relations with the United States in Lithuania,” Bruzga said.
Lawmakers were looking to improve relations when they passed the bill sponsored by Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio. But last-minute changes would impose stricter requirements that would probably exclude a number of the countries. Those requirements are based on the number of a country’s citizens who have been denied visas or exceeded their legal stays in the United States.
Seven of the countries whose citizens are required to obtain get have hired a Washington lobbying firm, Dutko Worldwide, to sway lawmakers. They are Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
Their ambassadors signed a letter to members of Congress this week objecting to the legislation. They said the amendment shifted the focus from dealing with security policy concerns to issues of illegal immigration. The letter calls for passing the House legislation without the Senate’s restriction.
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