American residents who were born in Southeast Asia are being charged $150 to $300 for visas to visit Thailand that cost others only $15.
Unlike most visitors to Thailand, Americans who were born in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia say they are unable to obtain their tourist visas from the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles. Instead, they are being sent to one of four private visa agencies that are charging them much higher fees.
Royal Thai Consulate officials said the policy, implemented earlier this year and approved by Bangkok authorities, is designed to prevent Southeast Asian refugees now in America from spending weeks and months with relatives in Thai refugee camps where they might instigate "trouble." The officials refused to elaborate or say if problems have surfaced in the past with refugees visiting Thailand.
They said the travel agencies are needed because the consulate does not have the manpower to properly research refugee tourists to determine if they are security risks.
"You have to understand that this is for the security of our country," said Sumet Wasantapruek, the consul general of the Royal Thai Consulate in Los Angeles.
Some U.S. Citizens
Yet some of those forced to pay the higher fees are not refugees but American citizens who left their native countries in Southeast Asia years ago and now hold U.S. passports. Others are permanent residents of the United States or refugees resettled here who carry American travel permits.
Alice Lieou, who left her native Laos 15 years ago and became an American citizen in 1984, said she was recently turned away from the consulate by officials who refused to consider her application for a tourist visa. Such visas are required for all visits over 15 days.
Lieou was told that she would have to go to one of four local visa agencies that have agreements with the Thai government to process visas for Southeast Asian-born tourists for fees ranging from $150 to $300. She eventually canceled plans for her vacation.
"I was very angry," said Lieou, 30, of Temple City. "They have all these advertisements saying come to Bangkok and then they treat you like a second-class citizen."
Wasantapruek said he was surprised to learn that American citizens who left Southeast Asia more than a decade ago and never inhabited a Thai refugee camp were being charged the higher fee.
"I think they misunderstood us," he said. "Once they can establish that they have never been in a refugee camp, we give them a visa without sending them to an agency."
The visa agencies post $1,000 bonds with the Thai government guaranteeing the return of each Southeast Asian tourist. Travel agents check the employment records and family backgrounds of the visa applicants to determine if they are firmly rooted in the United States and unlikely to stay in Thailand for extended periods, according to the consulate and the agencies.
If a Southeast Asian refugee tourist has not returned to the United States after a prescribed length of time, the visa agency loses its $1,000 and must forward copies of the travel documents to Thai immigration authorities.
Chavalit Kesonsukhon, an official with the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, said he was not aware of the policy in Los Angeles and did not believe that Thai consulates in New York and Chicago send Southeast Asians to travel agencies to obtain visitor visas.
He said the general policy was to deny visas only to those Southeast Asian refugees who had lived in Thai refugee camps before being resettled in America.
"If you were born in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia and left before 1975 without spending time in a Thai refugee camp, we have no problem issuing you a visa," he said.
But Pon Norasingh, a Laotian who came to America in 1970, said Los Angeles consulate officials refused to consider her application for a visa even though she is an American citizen and carries an American passport.
"They told me that because I was born in Laos, I could only get my visa through one of their travel agencies," said Norasingh, an admissions officer at a local university. "I told them they can't judge a person based on their birthplace. I can't help it if I was born in Laos. And no way I'm going to apologize for that either."
Norasingh, whose U.S. passport allows her to visit Thailand for two weeks without a visa, refused to pay the higher travel agency fee and recently left on a monthlong vacation to that nation without a visa. After two weeks there, she plans to get a two-week extension from the Thai immigration office in Bangkok.
"I'll be able to get an extension because I have a friend inside Thai immigration," she said.
Most Southeast Asian refugees cannot even enter the country without first securing a tourist visa. Refugees wanting to travel to Thailand have no choice but to pay the higher fee at a visa agency.
Royal Thai Consulate officials in Los Angeles identified the four visa agencies that have posted bonds with them as Best Ideas, World Best Tours, LA Wings and AM Travel. Officials at LA Wings and AM Travel said only a small number of Southeast Asians use their services.
A woman answering the phone at World Best Tours said the business is located inside a home and that no agents were available to talk. A woman answering the phone at Best Ideas said the visa business had not been established yet.
Other local consulates, such as those for Malaysia and Indonesia, must get clearance from their country's immigration offices before issuing tourist visas to Southeast Asian refugees residing in the United States. But officials at these consulates said they do not make use of private visa agencies or include American citizens born in Southeast Asia in the policy.