Originally, Bush administration intended the expansion as a reward to Eastern European countries which supported US war in Iraq in 2003. Negotiations between Bush administration and US Congress took a while, with US Congress trying to set limits on how the program can be expanded and Bush administration trying to write the rules so that they would be the party which decides.
The new law says:
(1) the United States should modernize the visa waiver program by simultaneously--
(A) enhancing program security requirements; and
(B) extending visa-free travel privileges to nationals of foreign countries that are allies in the war on terrorism.
The law then defines the requirements for the new program. The most important benchmark is the percentage of visa applications from a country that are denied under the present system. If less than 10% of visa applications are denied, the country becomes eligible for visa-free travel. Alternatively, if more than 10% of applications are denied but the percentage of visitors to US who stay in US illegally instead of going back at the end of their visit is very small, the country may also be eligible. (US will define the numerical value of "very small" later.)
It's less than Latvia has hoped for. Only two Eastern European nations qualify under the "10% rule": Czech Republic and Estonia. A few others have slightly more than 10% visa denials. Hungary has 12% and Latvia has 15%. Poland has more than 25% denial rate.
Well, Latvia probably will not become eligible for visa-free travel in the first year of the new program. Maybe in 2008, maybe in 2010. Maybe under the next US President. (Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has been quite supportive of visa-free travel for Eastern Europeans.) But it is a step forward.
Getting US visa can be a quite painful. While researching this blog post, I came across this story from Hungary. A researcher at Central European University went to US Embassy in Hungary and this what the rant that she heard from the US consul:
You work in an archive? Who wants to archive those dismal TV shows and cartoons? Anyway, it's beyond reasoning why they spend taxpayers' money on archiving programs that nobody is interested in. It's unbelievable that the CEU [Central European University] is spending money to preserve old photos, old nonsense, TV rubbish, spending money on sending people here and there, instead of helping Africans by sending aid.It's a humiliating story and I have heard similar ones from friends in Latvia. It seems that the way how US embassy staff treat visa applicants depends on the personality of the visa official (or even what mood the official is on a given day) at least as much as the actual visa application.
I'll have to do at least one US visa application for a work trip before Latvians become eligible for visa-free travel. And I'm not looking forward to it.
UPDATE (4/8): According to Artis Pabriks (Latvia's minister of foreign affairs), it should take about one and half more years until Latvians can travel to US without visas. That would be the end of 2008 or early in 2009.