Czechs travel visa-free USA

Tougher U.S. visa rules under fire

May 29, 2003

Leaders complain regulations unfairly hurt Czech travelers

Ivan Gavran went in front of a national television audience and successfully threw 10 hats onto a rack to win his family a trip to the United States.

But after enduring what he described as an expensive and frustrating visa-application process, Gavran gave up his dream of visiting America. He will go to Egypt instead.

“It was horrible,” said Gavran, an IT director for CMHB mortgage bank. “After 40 years under the Soviet regime, we don’t want to beg [for permission to visit the United States]. People see America like Russia.”

For now, he can only laugh when he recounts how he spent nearly 17,000 Kc ($635) trying to go on his doomed vacation. For him and many others, however, new visa requirements for Czech citizens wishing to visit the United States are not seen as a joke.

The U.S. Embassy introduced new rules for visa applicants April 22, citing security concerns and an increase in the number of Czechs working illegally in the country. The U.S. State Department has mandated that similar procedures be put in place in every country by Aug. 1.

Under the new rules, anyone wishing to travel to the United States must go through an interview, which must be arranged via a paid phone line that costs 38 Kc per minute. Previously, only about one in three visa applicants was picked for the screening interview.

While U.S. officials contend that the country is not being singled out and the number of people here rejected for visas will only increase slightly, some lawmakers have lashed out at what they consider a one-sided decision.

They also question the assertion that there are too many Czechs in the United States.

“This goes too far,” said Senator Petr Smutny of the Social Democrats (CSSD).

Gavran is convinced that the new procedures have just one goal: “To frustrate people not to go to America.”

Gavran said his bureaucratic odyssey began the moment he had to call for his appointment.

He soon discovered that the line could not be accessed from a mobile phone or even most land lines. He also could not call from work because employees are forbidden to access pay lines.

Gavran called from his mother’s house but he also had to fax his documents on the same number. “She doesn’t have a fax machine,” he said. “People don’t have fax machines at their homes.” Gavran went to the office, borrowed a fax machine, put it in his car and drove back.

He faxed his documents. The next day he called as instructed, only to get a recording that stated all operators were busy. “It meant that 38 Kc were gone,” he said.

Nine calls later, he got through. “I paid 400 Kc only to connect to an operator who told me how to continue,” Gavran said. He was then told that 24 hours had not elapsed since the time he had faxed his forms, so he would have to call back. The next time he got through in six calls.

“I was angry,” he said. He told the operator, “This is unbelievable.”

Gavran was told to bring documentation about his job, three months’ worth of bank statements, a certificate of his assets and proof that his children were enrolled in school.

He was then asked to pay 3,000 Kc for each $100 visa, although Gavran points out that the exchange rate at the time was 27.50 Kc to the dollar. “You pay 250 Kc more than the rate,” he said.

As Gavran prepared to send in his payment, including visa fees and bank fees — each had to be sent in separately — he stopped. He read that even with a valid visa there was no guarantee they would be let into the country on arrival. He decided not to risk it.

“I wanted to go on a holiday because I wanted to relax,” he said. He said considering what he had already gone through, he could not take the chance that an immigration officer might be in a bad mood.

“I gave up,” he said. “I am not rich enough to lose 150,000 Kc.”

Already out 2,000 Kc in phone calls, Gavran lost another 15,000 Kc when he canceled his tickets May 15.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “I put a lot of energy into this and I didn’t expect this behavior.”

Andy Miller, chief of the visa section at the U.S. Embassy, said the new visa rules are not specific to the Czech Republic and he said people should not feel they are being viewed as enemies.

“This is not personal and this is not an attempt to hurt the Czech Republic,” he said.

Miller said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have simply increased U.S. lawmakers’ security demands, and the new procedures are a byproduct of what he described as a very security-conscious climate in Washington.

Similar measures are already in place in Poland and Hungary and soon will be introduced in Slovakia, as well as every other country with diplomatic ties to the United States.

Miller said he was aware of some frustration but said his office was working to iron out the problems. He chalked them up to growing pains.

For instance, he said, he was unaware that many post offices had stopped allowing people to fax documents to 900 numbers. The visa office is now working to get travel agents to offer the service.

Miller defends the idea of charging people to set up their appointments because his office is dealing with a demand for a specific service. “It is allowable to charge them for that service,” he said.

Miller said the rate of visa approvals is about the same as it was last year, but the number of people who fail to show for interviews has dropped. He said the new procedure should actually make the process more efficient.

The new visa rules have irked some lawmakers here who have called on the Foreign Ministry to protest the measures.

Vladimir Lastuvka, the head of the Chamber of Deputies Foreign Committee, sharply criticized the measures and called on the government to reciprocate with its own visa requirements, which currently do not exist.

Senate Deputy Chairman Jan Ruml of the junior government Freedom Union (US-DEU) said the policy discriminates against people who wish to travel to the United States. The Foreign Ministry said the issue was not one that warranted discussion.

Miller said the U.S. Embassy has reached out to lawmakers in an attempt to explain the situation.

“We are not saying, ‘Let’s see how we can put it to our Central European allies,'” Miller said.

“In a sense of fairness, we are pleased that Americans can travel here without a visa,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can offer the same reciprocity.”

Gavran said he was surprised by the requirements, given that he thought his country had proven itself a close ally of the United States.

“We supported the war in Iraq with our troops,” he said.

“I don’t understand this.”

Gavran said for now he will just have to put off traveling to the States and see if the situation improves when the Czech Republic joins the European Union. “I still hope one day I will be able to visit America,” he said

Asked what he would tell Gavran, Miller said, “Be patient and don’t take it personally.”

Asked what advice he would give to fellow travelers, Gavran responded: “Change the plan. Go to New Zealand.”

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