- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

Biometric deadline

For the first time since September 11, 2001, West European countries whose citizens can travel to the United States without entry visas are not nervous about a major deadline imposed by Congress to maintain the visa-waiver program.

By Oct. 26, the countries in the program must begin issuing so-called biometric passports, containing a digitized photograph and a chip with personal information. The deadline has been extended twice at the request of governments that lacked the resources and technology to meet it.

“I don’t sense any nervousness,” Telmo Baltazar, justice and home affairs counselor at the European Union’s office in Washington, told our State Department correspondent, Nicholas Kralev. “We took the step to create single legislation, and we are all collectively improving our citizens’ travel documents.”

EU member states will be issuing biometric passports by Aug. 28, Mr. Baltazar said.

Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said the Europeans appear to be on track to fulfilling the requirements on time. He said the United States will begin issuing biometric passports this summer.

Any citizen of a visa-waiver country whose passport is issued after Oct. 26 can travel without a visa only if that passport meets the new standards, Mr. Edson said. If it does not, the traveler will have to apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate.

Those with passports issued before Oct. 26 still can enter the United States without a visa until their documents expire, Mr. Edson said. Because passports are valid for as long as 10 years, depending on the issuing country, the transition to the new standards is expected to continue over the next decade, he said.

Mr. Edson also said the United States will have to deal individually with the European Union’s new members from Central and Eastern Europe concerning visa requirements.

The European Union has warned that it would impose similar requirements on Americans traveling to Europe on official and diplomatic passports, if the visa requirements remain unchanged. Currently, only France, Spain and Greece require such visas, Mr. Baltazar said.

However, Mr. Edson said U.S. diplomats traveling to Europe on short visits already get visas regardless of which country they visit.

Lifting the visa regime for a group of countries only because they have joined an international organization would be a decision for political leaders, not immigration officials, Mr. Edson said.

Countries are ineligible for visa waivers if their citizens routinely stay longer in the United States than the documents allow or if U.S. consular officials reject more than 3 percent of a country’s visa applications.

Czech waiver

Czech Ambassador Peter Kolar complained that subjecting Czech citizens to U.S. visa requirements is an “outdated vestige of Cold War isolationism.”

Mr. Kolar, writing in the latest edition of the Czech Embassy newsletter, said one of his top priorities is to get the Bush administration to accept the Czech Republic into the visa-waiver program.

Allowing Czech citizens to travel to the United States without visas is “pivotal not only to maintaining strategic transatlantic relations but also to engendering closer people-to-people ties and enhancing Czech public perception of the United States as a true friend.”

“Subjecting Czech citizens to an expensive and arduous visa-application process is an outdated vestige of Cold War isolationism that no longer belongs in our modern EU-U.S. alliance,” he wrote.

Mr. Kolar also noted that the Czech government has done its part to show friendship by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to help rebuild schools, libraries and health clinics in cities and towns that Hurricane Katrina hit.

“The Czech Republic is pleased to help U.S. communities not only rebuild but achieve new heights,” he said.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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