• 2006-11-22

cartoon by Jevgenijs cheksters

The Riga summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the ideal forum for raising - and resolving - a touchy issue for several alliance members: the United States' exclusive visa regimen. Speaking directly, it is time Washington amend an unfair policy and soften travel requirement criteria so that citizens of the Baltic states, and East European countries at large, can go to the United States without a visa. For years now Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been lobbying Washington for the privilege of visa-free travel to the United States, but the latter hasn't budged.

The State Department claims that too many visa applicants from the Baltic states are rejected to warrant including them in the so-called visa waiver program. A country should have a rejection rate of less than 3 percent in order to qualify. In Latvia, that rate is about 13 percent; in Lithuania, it is even higher. Essentially, the system requires that applicants prove they will return home; prove it, and you can go. But if you're young, single, and don't own a business or real estate, chances are you will be barred.

By contrast, for years Saudi Arabia enjoyed some of the most lax visa rules for traveling to the U.S.A. Under a system known as Visa Express, a Saudi national only had to fill out a form and pay the fee to a travel agent, who in turn obtained the visa from the U.S. consular services in either Riyadh or Jeddah. And what did this system ultimately lead to? Think the Twin Towers.
The current visa system is time-consuming, expensive, humiliating, ineffective, and grossly injurious to the United States' image. It has given rise to a score of abuses and a glut of ill-will. Lastly, it is abashedly non-scientific. If anything, any given rejection rate is a function of attitude and mood of consular officers. If an embassy wants to turn away an applicant, it can always find a reason.

Illegal workers, no doubt, are a political time bomb in the U.S.A. right now. According to current estimates, the country has some 11 - 12 million illegal workers, or more than the three Baltic states combined. But the problem is more a function of demand-side enforcement than supply-side discrimination: Washington would make more inroads against illegal employment by muscling employers than by closing doors to foreign visitors. Thus a fairer test for the visa waiver program would be to disqualify countries based not on visa rejections (subjective) but to impose limits based on actual number of detainees and arrests (objective) in the United States.

Sound difficult? Not at all. It would "only" require the State Department, Homeland Security and the Justice Department to cooperate. But since inter-agency cooperation has never been one of Washington's strengths, any such scheme is unlikely to see the light of day.

In the past 15 years the three Baltic states - and other post-communist countries of Eastern Europe - have made tremendous strides in terms of economic development, security cooperation, and human rights observance. These countries are moving fast up most scales measuring progress, particularly in wealth per capita. (Corruption remains a steadfast malady, but America, with its Enrons and Abramoffs, also has its hands full.) Most importantly, tihe Baltic states are members of NATO, the most successful and powerful military alliance in the modern age, a feat that required years of reform. To boot, they are members of the Coalition of the Willing.

What greater expression of trust can there be between nation-states than entering a pact to ensure each other's security? If the United States truly entrusts its strategic allies with matters of intelligence gathering, military patrols, airspace monitoring, then why can't Washington allow Balts an innocent sojourn in Disneyworld or Manhattan? By maintaining its current all-or-nothing visa system, the Unites States continues to disenfranchise allies, disillusion well-meaning guests, and minimize tourist receipts. It is an antiquated system based on a lack of trust, and should be scrapped.