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EU rules squeeze US expats

Email|Print| Text size + By Julie O'Shea
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007

PRAGUE - Over the past several years, Europe has seen a surge of young, adventure-seeking Americans who bought one-way tickets, planning to become expatriates.

Some stay a few months, flitting from one country to the next. Others stay a few years, many working as English-language teachers, one of the few jobs foreigners can land easily without a work permit. However, stricter border laws that have been snaking their way across the continent are starting to put a crimp in these sorts of extended travel plans.

As more and more European countries enter into the Schengen border-free zone, it's important to get all the facts before booking any around-the-world flights.

The Schengen agreement, signed in 1985, eliminates internal passport checkpoints between member countries. But it also places heavier restrictions on non-European Union citizens. Foreigners are not permitted to stay in the Schengen zone for more than 90 days within a rolling six-month time frame without a valid work permit or visa.

Put another way, foreign travelers won't be able to renew their 90-day tourist visas by simply crossing the border from one country to the next, a popular tactic used now by scores of expats living and working illegally in many Central and Eastern European countries, where demand for English-language teachers is high.

Fifteen countries are part of the Schengen zone with nine more set to join this month.

"The goal is to have free movement of persons and reinforced external borders," said Friso Roscam Abbing, spokesman for the European Union Commission's justice, freedom, and security division. "Participation of all [member states] to the Schengen area could be a positive thing for EU and EU citizens."

Abbing added that the European Commission is "determined to tackle illegal work." This crackdown has many in Europe's extensive expat community a little nervous.

"It doesn't do these countries any good to make it impossible for native English speakers to get visas," said Molly Weisse-Bernstein, 27, a New Mexico native who recently moved to Barcelona to teach English after teaching in Prague for a year.

"I don't like being illegal - I hate it. But the paperwork takes months and months, and I didn't get the support that I needed," she said.

This is a familiar refrain in Prague teaching circles. Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic has become something of an expat hot spot, with dozens of foreigners enrolling in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training programs each month. Teachers here complain, however, that their language schools often won't help them through the complicated and costly visa process.

"Yeah, I'm worried," Weisse-Bernstein said. "It's one of the biggest worries I have." But, "there are hundreds and hundreds of people working illegally, and we can't all get caught."

This is not something Mark Wright, 33, is willing to chance.

"I don't really want to risk never being able to come back to Europe," said Wright, who moved to Prague from Texas two years ago to teach English. Wright fears he might have to go home early next year if he can't find a language school willing to sponsor him.

"I'm a little sad," he said.

The EU estimates there are 4.5 million to 8 million illegal migrants in Europe. These numbers are increasing by as much as 500,000 annually, officials say. The booming TEFL industry has no doubt contributed.

"The whole reason [Czech officials] are so tolerant of us here is because they need us here," Wright said. If they wanted to do a sweep of all the foreigners working without visas, "they know where to find us. They know where all the illegals are."

Kate McCloghry, director of studies at Threshold Training Associates, a Prague language school, believes "it is only a matter of time before there's a comprehensive audit."

If the new laws are strictly enforced, "I have a feeling a lot of people are going to leave," she said.

It's not really clear how - or if - things will change in the Czech Republic once the country enters the Schengen zone.

"The practice in this respect will not differ from the current situation when enforcing the national immigration law," said Petr Vorlicek, a spokesman for the Czech Ministry of the Interior. "The foreigners living here illegally are . . . exposed to routine immigration and police checks."

The US Embassy doesn't have any concrete figures showing how many US citizens are living and working in the Czech Republic.

Regardless, however, "I don't think we would be in a position to recommend one thing or another" to Americans who wish to stay past their 90-day tourist visas, said Michael Hahn, an embassy spokesman. "Certainly people need to comply with the country's [immigration] laws.

"Our position here," Hahn added, "is not for us to encourage US citizens" to find ways around the Schengen zone.

Julie O'Shea, an editor for The Prague Post from California, can be reached at julie0616@gmail.com.

If You Go

Countries in the Schengen zone at the end of 2007: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

Countries set to join by Friday: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Checkpoints: Land and sea border controls to be lifted Friday, air border controls March 31, 2008 SOURCE: EU Commission

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