Source AP ©

USA to expand visa-free entry program for several countries

Congress is close to approving legislation to expand a program that allows citizens of some countries to travel to the United States without visas. Nationals of several close allies, including some with troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, appear to be excluded.

Those barred from visaless entry could include Eastern Europeans, many of them citizens of new member states of the European Union. Most EU countries of Western Europe require no visas, a favor granted citizens of some other U.S. allies.

The outline of the visa program began to take shape in a security bill agreed upon Wednesday by negotiators from the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate approved it late Thursday, and the House was expected to pass the bill as early as Friday, sending it to the president to sign into law.

In many of the new EU countries whose citizens still would require visas, inclusion in the visa-waiver program has become a sensitive political issue and a subject of intense diplomatic discussion with the United States. Many NATO members have complained that their support of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have not won them entry into the program.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski raised the issue with Bush during a visit to the White House. The administration has expressed support for a limited expansion of the program as a way to reward allies.

The bill moving for final legislative action would make it difficult for many other countries to qualify by setting technical requirements based on the number of a country's citizens who have been denied visas or exceeded their legal stays in the United States.

One provision requires that countries demonstrate that fewer than 10 percent of recent applicants for U.S. visas have been denied.

According to State Department statistics for the first six months of this year provided by the office of independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who chaired the negotiations on the final bill, countries including Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia and Hungary would not qualify. Most of those countries come in close to the 10 percent requirement, but Poland and Romania had more than 25 percent of their applicants rejected.

The Czech Republic and Estonia currently would meet the requirement, as would South Korea, which also has made clear it wanted to join the program.

On Thursday, Poland expressed disappointment that the legislation would not allow its immediate entry into the program.

"We will continue our campaign to convince members of the U.S. Congress that including Poland into the visa waiver program would strengthen security of the United States, would enhance the security of travelers and would strengthen political and cultural ties between the United States and Central European countries," said the press attache in the Polish Embassy in Washington, Pawel Maciag.

Earlier drafts of the legislation that would have made it easier for countries to qualify foundered on opposition from some lawmakers worried about insecure borders and illegal immigration.

Congressional aides say that the bill allows for some flexibility. Countries seeking entry must demonstrate their eligibility to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Aides said that if the countries demonstrate eligibility over time by implementing stricter policies to monitor their citizens' travel to the United States, they could be added.

Republican Senator George Voinovich, an advocate of expanding the program, said the legislation would allow many more countries to join eventually.

"I believe it may only be a matter of time until all of our allies are brought into this new program, once everyone sees this is a more secure and efficient system for promoting travel and business," he said.