The official US government watchdog agency yesterday criticized the Bush administration for its failure to include Taiwan in a plan to expand the so-called visa waiver program, under which citizens of favored countries are allowed visa-free entry into the US for up to 90 days, indicating that political and technical reasons were involved.
Acceptance of Taiwan into the program would save Taiwanese the cost and hassle of applying for a visa for short personal, tourist and business trips to the US.
But despite the fact that Taiwan fits the requirements — more so than most other countries, including those to be added to the program this year — the US has not explained why Taiwan is excluded, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released yesterday. While Taiwan is not expected to be admitted to the program until next year at the earliest, Taiwan’s representatives have been talking with US officials for some time about the program, which is a product of efforts by the US Homeland Security Department (DHS) to revamp US visa rules in the wake of Sept. 11.
The program seeks to reward citizens of countries that have few of what US authorities consider to be “undesirables” trying to enter the US each year, and that have helped the US in the “war” on terrorism.
The US Congress expanded the program last year in a move that would appear to have made it easier for Taiwan to join.
In a 53-page report criticizing the visa waiver program, the GAO sharply criticized DHS for shortcomings in administering the expansion process, which has prevented several countries — including Taiwan — from entering the program.
Under the basic program, the DHS and State Department count the number of visa applicants each year who are rejected entry for a variety of reasons, or the so-called rejection rate. Countries with less than a 3 percent rejection rate are given visa waivers. Still, under a law passed by Congress last year, the US can give such waivers to countries with rejection rates of up to 10 percent.
The GAO report showed that last year, Taiwan’s rejection rate was 5 percent. However, Taiwanese officials dispute that figure and one top official at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington told the Taipei Times that the figure is actually 3.8 percent, one of the world’s lowest and enough to qualify in the waiver program. It was not clear why the US side was exaggerating the refusal rate for Taiwan, but the TECRO official would not confirm whether it was the result of pressure from China.
China has a 21 percent rejection rate, one of the world’s highest.
In addition to the refusal rate, countries must satisfy other requirements, which Taiwan either already meets or will meet by next year, Taiwanese officials said.
However, Taiwan and other countries have been unable to get a clear response from State Department and DHS officials, while the GAO report places the blame squarely on the US side.
The report said DHS officials “created confusion” among US officials and other countries, making it difficult for embassy officials — presumably including the American Institute in Taiwan — to explain the expansion process and tell them when they could be admitted.
“Furthermore, State officials said that it was difficult to explain to countries with fiscal year 2007 refusal rates below 10 percent that have signaled interest in joining the program [such as Croatia, Israel and Taiwan] why DHS is not negotiating with them,” the report said.
What makes the situation worse, the GAO said, is that the DHS is talking with East European countries whose refusal rate is more than 10 percent “with the expectation that fiscal year 2008 rates will be below this ceiling,” the report said.
The negotiations fit the Bush administration policy of expanding the program to favored countries whose help Washington seeks in the “war on terror” and other policy priorities, the report said.
At present, 27 countries are in the visa waiver program and another 13 so-called “Road Map” countries are in discussions with Washington to join the program. But these, again, exclude Taiwan.
Taiwan’s refusal rate is lower than virtually all of the Road Map countries, the GAO report said.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Henry Chen (陳銘政) said one requirement for the program was integrated chip passports, which Taiwan has not introduced because of concerns by human rights groups. He said the upgraded passports could be ready by year’s end.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JENNY W. HSU
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