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US Considers Change in Visa Laws - 2001-10-31

The United States is considering requiring visas for people visiting the United States from six countries where they are normally not needed, including close American ally Belgium. This is just one of the latest steps Washington is taking to tighten immigration in order to keep potential terrorists out of the country.

In addition to Belgium, passport holders from Argentina, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Uruguay may soon be required to apply for U.S. visas. The six are among 29 countries whose nationals can currently enter the United States visa-free. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher calls the move part of a routine review required by law. "We've been planning on doing this review prior to September 11. It's a routine event that will go on every year," he says.

But one U.S. official familiar with this list of countries says there have been concerns about how passports in some of them are being issued. Belgium for example, has had problems in recent years with blank passports being stolen and then fraudulently issued, prompting the government to adopt tighter and more centralized passport controls.

Under diplomatic protocol, Americans usually need visas to enter any country whose nationals are required to have them to come to the United States. That means any changes the United States makes regarding visa requirements could make it more difficult for Americans to travel abroad.

This review comes a day after President Bush announced tighter immigration and visa controls to keep potential terrorists from entering the United States. Steps include cracking down on foreign students who overstay their visas or who come to study here but fail to attend class. Authorities say at least two of the hijackers involved in the September 11 terror attacks had overstayed their visas.