US Senate to handle bill on expanding visa waiver program

WASHINGTON, Dec 12, BNS – Lawmakers in the US Congress last week introduced a bill to implement President George W. Bush’s promised expansion of visa-free travel for US allies, UPI reported.

The bill gives the secretaries of state and homeland security one year to establish a pilot program for up to five US allies who would not normally be eligible to participate in the visa waiver program to join it.

Under the existing program, citizens of the 27 participating nations can visit the United States for business or pleasure for up to three months without a visa. But many countries, especially US allies in Eastern Europe, feel unjustly excluded, and last month Bush promised to work with them to expand the program to other nations who cooperated with the United States in its war on terrorism.

The Secure Travel and Counter-terrorism Partnership Bill was introduced by senior senators of both parties and both committees of jurisdiction — the committees for foreign relations and homeland security and governmental affairs. Senators George Voinovich, Richard Lugar, Daniel Akaka and Barbara Mikulski are among the original co-sponsors.

The proposed law gives wide latitude to Homeland Security and State Department officials to negotiate deals with candidates for the pilot, which will allow countries not meeting the existing criteria for visa-free travel to be admitted to the program for a three-year probationary period if they meet certain security standards.

Voinovich said candidates would also have to implement US-approved security plans for better information-sharing on lost and stolen passports and criminal and terrorist watch-lists, as well as higher standards for document and airport security.

As part of the plan, these new, higher security standards would also eventually be applied also to the existing nations in the visa waiver program.

“Enhancing the security of the whole program is the key political selling point” for reform, said a Voinovich aide. “You can’t expect the American people to support (an expansion of the program) if you can’t promise the highest standards” of security.

Under the bill, officials will have to “certify that the country is cooperative on counter-terrorism and does not pose a security or law enforcement threat to the United States,” Voinovich said in Senate last week.

He said candidate countries “would be required to conclude new agreements with the United States to further strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism and improve information-sharing about critical security issues.”

“By limiting travel to the United States,” especially from friendly nations, Voinovich said, “we are risking a loss of influence with the future leaders of our closest allies.”

Indeed the failure to expand the program has caused friction with US allies, especially in the European Union. Fifteen of the 25 EU member states are in the visa waiver program, but US citizens can travel to any EU member country visa-free.

The demand from EU states like Poland, Estonia and Latvia — where Bush first pledged to widen the program, on the fringes of the NATO summit in Riga last month — for reciprocity on visa-free travel has become clamorous, the report said.

Supporters of reform say the criteria for the existing visa waiver program were drawn before Sept. 11, 2001, and reflect a very different global environment. The standards are mainly concerned with economic factors and potential illegal migration, rather than security.

Baltic News Service