A sore point: US visa requirements

I don’t think there could be a touchier subject when it comes to American-Hungarian relations than the obligatory visa requirement for Hungarians who want to visit the United States. Every time the question comes up anti-American feelings surface and rational dialogue becomes impossible. It has become an extremely emotional question. One can hear horror stories about the humiliating treatment of applicants, the often arbitrary denial of visa applications, the high fees, the fingerprints, etc. On the basis of my limited experience with foreign embassies, the culprits may not be the American staff members but the Hungarian employees who deal with the "natives." Their behavior, in my experience, was pretty objectionable. I for one refused to speak to them in Hungarian, which helped a bit.

Anyway, the situation is as follows. Until recently, citizens of a foreign country could visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa if and only if 3% or fewer of their fellow countrymen’s visa applications were rejected. Congress just passed a new bill that will increase the cut-off rate to 10%. Once President Bush signs the bill into law, the U.S. State Depatment will determine which countries will qualify under the new program. Bush has identified Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and South Korea as potential candidates.

Currently, 12.7% of Hungarian visa requests are turned down. (In Poland, by contrast, the number is 26%.) So Hungary is still above the cut-off rate. However, every year the numbers are decreasing. Admittedly, these refusals can be rather arbitrary, and I’m sure that the American authorities play with these numbers in such a way that certain countries fall outside the visa exemption. On the other hand, too high a number of Hungarians with tourist visas fail to return home after their stay. I have heard of people who came here on a tourist visa and were employed illegally as live-in maids and baby-sitters and, when the boyfriend came, he worked illegally in a large department store. It is relatively easy to disappear in this country, and the authorities have a hard time tracking down those who remain here illegally. (Here I speak from personal experience. After arriving in Canada it took Hungarian immigrants five years to get Canadian citizenship. Prior to that, we were issued a passport-like document called a Certificate of Identity, and we needed an American visa if we wanted to visit the United States. When we arrived at the border, we received a piece of paper that was attached to this certificate and that was supposed to be removed on leaving the United States. Well, one time the Americans forgot to remove this piece of paper from the pages of the certificate and I didn’t notice it either. It took the American authorities two solid years to find me in Canada. One evening someone rang the bell in my apartment in Ottawa; an American official was standing at the door who just wanted to be sure that I had returned from the United States! I could have stayed in the United States for two solid years without being discovered.) So, we don’t really know the number of Hungarians who violate the terms of their visa, but the State Department guesses that the number is high. In any case, one of the important goals of Hungarian diplomacy is the lifting of visa restrictions.

New members of the European Union (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary) lobbied hard in Washington for a change in U.S. policy.  When the House voted at the end of July to change the cutoff point from 3% to 10%, the above countries, with the notable exception of Hungary, expressed their disappointment with the provisions of the new law. According to them, it didn’t go far enough. Although the seven countries had lobbied together, Hungary refused to sign the common document. The spokesman of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry was quite open; Hungary didn’t sign the document because Hungary didn’t share the opinions expressed in the letter. I heard an interview with the ministry’s undersecretary and came to the conclusion that Hungary must have received some private reassurance that soon enough there will not be compulsory visa requirements for Hungarian citizens. The Hungarian ambassador in Washington, András Simonyi, has very good connections with congressmen and senators, and he may well have been one of those who cautioned the ministry to be patient. According to Simonyi, the reaction in Washington to the Hungarian position is very positive. Also one mustn’t forget that Tom Lantos, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committe, is of Hungarian origin and almost yearly visits Budapest. He is going to Hungary again very soon where he is going to have extensive talks with the foreign ministry officials.

We will see whether the Hungarians were right. In any case, István Szent-Iványi, SZDSZ member of the European Union’s parliament, expressed his disappointment at the Hungarian government’s refusal to go along with the other six countries. He stated that there might be important reasons for Hungary’s refusal to go along with the others, but "neither the government, nor the ministry made these reasons public." I actually would find it rather odd if the government or the ministry made the reasons behind their decision public. Lately, I have the distinct feeling that Szent-Iványi was offended when he didn’t become minister of foreign affairs at the formation of the second Gyurcsány government. For a while there were rumors that perhaps the SZDSZ would receive this post instead of one of the other ministries (health, environment, economics) SZDSZ occupies at the moment. It didn’t work out that way, but since then Szent-Iványi has made some very strange statements.

At any event, I’m pretty optimistic that that Hungarians know what they are doing.