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Visa Program Angers Allies

Some American allies are expressing anger at the uneven treatment that their citizens are getting when they visit the United States, while Europeans from nations with longer, but now more strained ties to America get no additional scrutiny at the border.

Eastern Europeans who have helped out in the war in Iraq are taking particular issue with the requirement that tourists from their countries get fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. ports of entry.

Polish soldiers are "daily risking their lives for America's war on terror, and these are people who while they are in Iraq, they learn that they will have to be fingerprinted [when they visit the United States]. They feel that they will be treated as criminals," said Radek Sikorski, executive director of the American Enterprise Institute's New Atlantic Initiative (search).

"Isn't there a better way to treat allies?" Sikorski asked.

Poland is leading the international division in Iraq and has contributed some 2,500 troops. Polish officials want their citizens to join those of France, Germany and 25 other countries in a visa waiver program.

Homeland Security Department (search) officials say that determining who must submit to the screening is not an arbitrary decision or one based on an ally's loyalty, but on clearly defined standards. Although they acknowledge there have been some difficulties with the system, officials on both sides of the Atlantic say the program has been a success.

Officials say the two-month-old U.S.-VISIT (search) program, which uses a biometric system that examines characteristics unique to each human, has already processed 1.8 million people and has netted more than 150 watch list hits.

These people, including convicted drug traffickers and rapists "would have been admitted except for the finger scan that caught them," said Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning C. Stewart Verdery Jr.

Verdery acknowledged "some major hiccups," but stressed the enormous task the Department of Homeland Security completed to get the program up and running. 

"The VISIT system has been a tremendous success," he said.

Under the program, all visitors to the United States except those from Canada, Mexico, and 25 other exempted countries are fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the country by air. The program aims eventually to follow the same procedures at land and sea ports as well as have an exit regimen that will allow U.S. authorities to track departures and expired visas.

Countries with insecure borders, nations that have been a source of terrorism or countries that have had more than 3 percent of their applicants refused visas are barred from the visa waiver program. Only one Eastern European country is in the visa waiver program. A major reason Eastern Europeans have relatively high refusal rates is that they are more often cited as visitors likely to overstay their visas than citizens of richer Western European countries.

Americans visiting Poland are allowed to travel freely, but Poles coming to the United States must apply for a visa from American consulates in Poland and pay a non-refundable $100 fee.

This policy "really affects the sense of fairness of citizens of countries who have been good allies of the U.S," Sikorski said.

During a visit to Washington in January, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search) called on Washington to drop its visa requirements for Polish citizens. But President Bush responded noncommittally.

"We've got visa rules set by the Congress, that are on the books, and we look forward to working with the president on this issue," Bush said.

Poland is not alone in its dissatisfaction with the U.S. visa regimen. When Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister Stanislav Gross traveled to Washington in January, he asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) to "very seriously reconsider" the visa requirement for citizens of his country, which has deployed a 120-man special forces unit to Afghanistan.

Bulgaria, which has 500 troops in Iraq, and Romania, which has troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are also considering raising the issue with Washington.

Citizens of these nations note that anti-American terrorism has not come from their countries, while Al Qaeda cells have been discovered among the large Muslim populations in Britain, France and Germany.

Jonathan Faull, director general of justice and home affairs at the European Commission, (search) stressed the need for reciprocity in terms of visa requirements. The European Union's 15 current members enjoy visa reciprocity with the United States, but most of the countries slated to join the EU do not have any existing mutual relationship. Poland and the Czech Republic will join the European Union in May, and Bulgaria and Romania are hoping to join in 2007.

"The Polish complaint is one I urge you to take seriously. We want to have full reciprocity as soon as possible," Faull said to an American audience.

Faull acknowledged that the program has been "a remarkable success" because it rapidly put in place vital security measures. But, he added, it is important to keep foreign partners up to speed on exactly where the program is headed to avoid unnecessarily bruised sensitivities.

"My plea to our American friends is let us know as early as possible what is going on," he said.

American officials and analysts say they are happy with the program's progress so far.

"Congress has been talking about this for eight years. This program is nothing more and nothing less than having real borders," said Steven Brill, founder and CEO of Verified Identity Pass Inc. (search).

Verdery said the program is not based on loyalty to the United States, but on strictly defined criteria. He noted that Israel, an American ally, was turned down from the program because it did not meet these criteria.

The program has also raised concerns outside of Europe. Angered by the program's measures, Brazil put similar fingerprinting and photographing restrictions on Americans, which proved cumbersome for tourists. And foreign ministers from Bangladesh and Indonesia traveled to Washington specifically to protest the measures.