Czechs may benefit from proposed changes in U.S. visa policy

President George W. Bush, photo: CTK

On Tuesday U.S. President George W. Bush announced plans to modify his country's visa waiver program that would raise the number of countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa. This move could affect the Czech Republic, allowing its citizens to travel to the U.S. on business or pleasure for 90 days without going through the arduous process of obtaining a visa. Emily Udell has the report.

President George W. Bush,  photo: CTK
President Bush announced an initiative to modify the country's visa waiver program in a statement that could mean citizens of new European Union countries will soon be able to enter the U.S. without visas. The announcement was made on a trip to Estonia and Latvia, two EU members that--like the Czech Republic--could be affected by a change in U.S. visa policy.

Bush's statement addresses an issue that has long rankled Czech citizens, and has become one of the sore spots in bilateral relations between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. Czech officials have long decried the U.S. policy that requires Czechs to apply for visas for any travel to the States. Americans can enter the Czech Republic for 90 days without visas.

"From the perspective of the Czechs, the position I so often hear is: we the Czechs are with you in Iraq, we're with you in Afghanistan, we're promoting democracy around the world, yet United States citizens don't need a visa to come to this country, but Czechs need a visa to go to the United States," said Richard Graber, the U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Most long-standing EU member states are not required to apply for visas to go to the U.S., but newer members, like the Czech Republic, are still required to do so.

According to current U.S. policy, visa rejections need to be below 3 percent for a two-year period before free-visa relations will be considered. The percentage of applications from Czech citizens that were rejected in the past 10 years has been hovering at around 10 percent annually. Bush's statement said modifications to the current visa waiver policy would be made alongside efforts to heighten U.S. border security.

Czech Foreign Minister Alexandr Vondra and the U.S. Ambassador Richard Graber,  photo: CTK
"From the United State's perspective security is a big issue," Ambassador Graber said. "The world changed after September 11, and security became a bigger issue than it's ever been at any time in the history of our country. So I think what we're trying to do and what you're starting to see is an effort to marry the two concepts. Let's find a way to get countries such as the Czech Republic in visa waiver as soon as we possibly can, but at the same time make sure that we are taking into account the security of the United States."

In his statement Bush modern technology could heighten security by more accurately tracking travelers entering and leaving the country.

Some recent advances on the visa issue have already been made in the Czech Republic. Last week Ambassador Graber and the Czech Foreign Minister Alexandr Vondra announced a new measure that will streamline the visa process for employees of companies belonging to the American Commercial Chamber, a 13-year old organization that promotes trade relations between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. The new process will benefit approximately 450 companies.

On Czech TV after Bush's Tuesday announcement Mr. Vondra projected a timeline of approximately two years to fully balance U.S.-Czech visa relations.

"It's basically a political statement, which casts light on the need to change the law," he said. "It's not a question of weeks or even months, but I think that one or two years would be a realistic estimate."

Ambassador Graber did not estimate a timeframe for implementing the new measure because the United States Congress has to approve any change in visa law, but he does see Bush's statement as a definite step forward in the process.

"The president made a significant announcement today," he said. "He announced that he was willing to work with Congress to establish flexibility in existing visa waiver law, to provide modifications to visa law that would focus on security. So it's a somewhat different focus than it's been in the past. There's a long way to go on this. Congress has to change the law. Of course, any time a law is changed in the United States that's a process; it's not something that happens instantly or overnight. But from the perspective of the Czechs, I think it has to be looked at as good news."