Dialogue on U.S. visa regimen escalates

  • 2004-08-26
  • By Steven Paulikas
VILNIUS - Lithuania's hopes of being placed on the U.S.A.'s Visa Waiver Program received added attention on Aug. 20, when a delegation from the House of Representatives visiting Vilnius discussed the issue with top officials.

At a press conference held after their meeting with President Valdas Adamkus, delegation members promised to investigate Lithuania's case for visa-free travel to the United States.
"We feel, as members of the U.S. Congress, that we have a special relationship with your government, with the people, with the country," said Rep. Jerry Costello.
In their meeting with Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, the American legislators agreed that travel restrictions of any sort hamper the exchange of information and workers between countries.
Lithuania's bid to be put on the list of countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the United States without visas gained momentum in Vilnius following the country's accession to the EU this May.
In addition to this most recent meeting between U.S. and Lithuanian officials, in June, a group of Lithuanian politicians led by Paulauskas-who at the time was acting president-pressed American officials in Washington to review their policy.
Lithuania's arguments for lifting the ban on free travel to the U.S.A. are rooted in the country's newfound prominence in the West's most prominent international organizations.
"We unilaterally dropped our visa regime with America in 1994. It is only natural that we seek parity for our own citizens," said Petras Anusas, deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's consular department.
In spite of their hopeful declarations, Lithuanian officials have admitted they do not expect to be added to the Visa Waiver Program in the near future.
In order to be included in the program, a country must have an acceptance rate of at least 98 percent among their citizens who apply for a U.S. visa. Lithuania's acceptance rate, in comparison, hovers around a relatively paltry 70 percent.
"Membership in the EU doesn't mean that a country automatically is added to the Visa Waiver Program. Greece, which has been an EU member for a long time, isn't in the program," explained Anthony Pahigian, press officer for the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius.
With neither side expecting a rapid introduction of visa-free travel, U.S. and Lithuanian officials claim to be working together toward membership in the program as a long-term goal.
"Our efforts have been concentrated on getting the refusal rate down," said Anusas.
In May the embassy sponsored an education program designed to inform young Lithuanians on the dangers of working illegally in America and how to obtain permission for legal short-term employment.
Aside from dropping the visa requirement entirely, U.S. politicians are also exploring other options that would make it easier for citizens from new EU countries to travel to America.
A resolution introduced by members of the House caucus on Central and Eastern Europe earlier this year seeks to rescind the $100 visa-application fee for citizens of countries whose governments participated in the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq. The authors of the resolution have explained that the initiative is intended to be a "reward" to East European countries for their support of America in the war.
In spite of all the talk, the only concrete steps that are currently being taken on the visa issue have moved in the direction of heightened-not relaxed-security.
On Aug. 23, the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius became the last in the Baltic states to introduce biometric verification of visa applicants.
During their interview with a U.S. consular officer, candidates for visas are asked to submit digital fingerprints, which are checked against a central database in Washington.
"It only takes 15 seconds-five if your fingers are clean," said Pahigian.