- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2006

President Bush’s proposal to loosen U.S. visa rules for a select group of allies yesterday drew strong protests from security analysts and strong support from countries that hope to benefit from the liberalized rules.

The starkly different reactions underscored the political force of the immigration security issue five years after the September 11 attacks, an issue that will quickly confront the new Democratic Congress early next year.

While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said yesterday there is no firm list of countries that would be given the waiver privilege, Mr. Bush’s proposal to ease travel curbs for select allies in Eastern Europe and East Asia “is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” said Janice Kephart, former counsel to the September 11 commission.

“All this would do would be to open up another loophole for people to get into the country at a time when we have yet to secure our borders against possible threats,” she added.

But Slovak Ambassador Rastislav Kacer, whose country is one of about a dozen allies hoping to qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, said the change would eliminate a major irritant in relations between the United States and string of close allies in Central Europe.

“People in Slovakia say, ‘OK, we support America in Iraq and around the world. Why are we not included in this program? Where is the justice?’ ” he said.

Mr. Kacer said ambassadors from a number of European countries hoping to join the waiver program will meet today with officials from the Department of Homeland Security to learn more about the administration’s plans.

Citizens of 27 countries — most from Western Europe but also including allies such as Australia, Japan and Singapore — now can travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa. No countries have been added to the list since the September 11 attacks.

Slovakia is one of about a dozen countries stuck on the doorstep for admittance, along with Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania and South Korea.

Mr. Bush said Tuesday in the Estonian capital of Tallinn he would soon send a proposal to Congress to “loosen” the visa-waiver requirements to allow the applicants to qualify.

One major change: allowing countries with a visa-rejection rate above 3 percent, the current cutoff, to obtain the waiver, if those countries agree to other new security measures.

DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said yesterday there is no timeline for the proposed changes, which still must be approved by Congress. He said there was “maybe a handful of countries” that would qualify for the waiver if the changes are adopted, but said the administration is not ready to “name names.”

Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, said he planned to introduce a bill next week to extend visa-free travel privileges to countries allied with the United States in the global war on terrorism. Mr. Voinovich had been drafting his bill separately from the administration proposal, an aide to the senator said.

But Michael W. Cutler, a retired senior agent with the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he was “outraged” by Mr. Bush’s suggestion that the number of visa-waiver countries be expanded without hurting security.

“The president is apparently willing to ignore high refusal rates for visa applications and is claiming that because aliens from visa-waiver countries generally leave the United States within [the authorized period], it is reasonable to have the citizens of those countries participate in a program that creates inherent national security vulnerabilities,” Mr. Cutler said.

“He makes those assertions even though he knows our government lacks the ability to know when these aliens leave our country.”

Daniel Griswold, a trade specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Mr. Bush was apparently banking on a more friendly reception for the proposal with Democrats soon to be running Congress.

Mr. Griswold, who supports the change, predicted the visa waiver would be extended only to a tightly defined group of allies.

“I guarantee you the president was not talking about Saudi Arabia,” he said.

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