Czechs may soon travel visa-free, but officials say it’s not enough
On Aug. 3, U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law changes to the visa-waiver program, bringing the Czech Republic one step closer to visa-free travel for stays of 90 days or less.
While some have heralded the changes, Czech officials in Washington, D.C., are already lobbying Congress to amend a law they say is unclear and unfair. Their criticisms, along with those from several other countries, highlight the law’s controversial criteria as well as the finer points of complex legislation.
In light of uncertainty over what the changes mean to Czechs, a representative at the U.S. Embassy in Prague explains the details and lesser-known aspects of the law.
“We try to keep things as objective, fair and transparent as possible,” says Mario Mesquita, deputy consul general.
So far, Czech criticism has focused on the requirement that a country’s “refusal rate” be no higher than 10 percent. This means no more than 10 percent of people who apply for a visitor’s visa from a given country can be rejected in order for the country to qualify to join the program.
The country’s rate for last year was 9.4 percent, a figure that worries some.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year, what’s going to happen in two years, with regards to the numbers,” says Daniel Nový, a spokesman at the Czech Embassy in Washington.
He and others, including Foreign Affairs Ministry officials, express concern that if the number rises, the country will no longer qualify for the visa-waiver program.
But Mesquita says Czechs have nothing to worry about.
“I’m confident the numbers will be lower the next time those statistics are compiled,” he says. “The number has for years now trended downward.”
The primary concern over this requirement stems from the fact that the government can do nothing to influence these numbers since, as Mesquita says, “all applicants are looked at as individuals” and there isn’t a way for the government to influence individual applications.
Instead, the government is banding together with some other East European countries to try to amend the 10 percent rule.
On Aug. 9, the U.S.-based Czech Embassy released a joint statement with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia calling for a change in the new law.
“The legislation does not meet our expectations due to its reliance on visa refusal rates as a criterion for program participation,” the statement reads. “As a result, some of America’s closest allies will still be subject to artificial barriers that do not reflect their deep level of commitment and engagement in enhancing transatlantic and global security.”
“We just want for our citizens what our countries grant to U.S. citizens,” Nový says.
Instead of relying on the refusal rate, Nový says he would like to see the law place “more emphasis on the security aspects.”
Indeed, part of the stated intention of the new law is to grant privileges to countries that help the United States with the so-called war on terrorism.
The Coalition for Visa Equality, as the group formed by the embassies is called, is now looking at legislation already in Congress that could be used as a vehicle for amending the visa-waiver law, Nový says.
And Bush appears open to changes in the law, saying Aug. 3, “I will continue to work with Congress to advance our security and foreign policy objectives by allowing greater flexibility to bring some of our closest allies into the program.”
A closer look at the law shows there is another way a country can qualify for the program even if its refusal rate is too high.
The law states that either the refusal rate has to be below 10 percent or the “overstay rate,” the percentage of people who overstay their allowed visits, “does not exceed the maximum visa overstay rate, once such a rate is established.” So far, this number hasn’t been determined.
But, generally, these numbers — the refusal rate and the exit rate — tend to track each other pretty closely, Mesquita says.
“Neither number should cause the Czech Republic any concern,” he says.
Although it can’t influence these numbers, there are other measures the country has taken to ready itself for entry.
The program requires, among other security measures, that a participating country use biometric electronic chips in their passports. This means that even if the passport were altered, the chip inside it would reveal a duplicate of the original, thereby making fraud much more difficult.
Czech passports issued since September last year contain this chip, as do new U.S. passports.
Some work needs to be done by the Americans, too. The law calls for an air-exit system to be in place by June 30, 2009. This system would track when visitors leave the United States, first through tracking names and passport numbers and later through biometric measures that could include fingerprinting, Mesquita says.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has determined that a successful system will track at least 97 percent of exits.
The other major system the United States is working on what is called the Electronic Travel Authorization System, which would require that travelers from all visa-waiver countries log in two or three days before their trip to let U.S. authorities know they’re coming. The authorities would have the power to reject them, Mesquita says.
As it stands now, most Czechs who apply for tourist visas get approved, despite a burdensome application process that costs $100 (2,460 Kč).
Interviews with the embassy can usually be set up within a week or two and the decision is made during the interview, which lasts about three to five minutes, Mesquita says.
“In general, what we are looking for is that a person is not an intending immigrant to the United States,” he says.
Embassy officials consider the person’s economic and social ties to the Czech Republic as well as his or her employment history.
Last year, more than 32,000 tourist visas were issued to Czechs, according to embassy officials.
Some agencies, which charge fees starting at 500 Kč ($24.50), will assist in the process of applying for a visa, but Mesquita says using such an agency would not improve an applicant’s chance of acceptance.
All forms can be filled out for free, and all appointments can be made online at www.usembassy.cz. For at least the next year and a half, this is the system Czechs will need to use to travel to the United States.
Nový says he expects the country will be part of the visa-waiver program by 2009. Mesquita, however, would not commit to a certain date. “We can’t say right now. … We hope to have a better idea soon,” he says.