Goal of Visiting the U.S. Without a Visa Still Eludes Poles

In recent years, the Polish government stood by the U.S., strongly supporting President Bush’s war on terror by sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and agreeing to install parts of an American missile defense system in its territory.

As a demonstration of U.S. gratitude, Poland hoped to be included in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which would allow Polish citizens to enter the U.S. as tourists or for business purposes for up to 90 days without having to first obtain a visa. But despite extensive negotiations between representatives of both governments Poland’s dream has not come true, and the chances of Poland joining the program anytime soon are very slim.

Biometric systems to verify travelers identities could help Polands chances of entering the Visa Waiver Program. (Photo: E. Kern-Jedrychowska/Polish Daily News)

Biometric systems to verify travelers' identities could help Poland's chances of entering the Visa Waiver Program. (Photo: E. Kern-Jedrychowska/Polish Daily News)

Currently all but five European Union member countries participate in the VWP. In addition to Poland, which joined the EU in 1999, the other exceptions are Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.

Many Eastern European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, were accepted into the program in November 2008. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said at the time that the decision was “a removal of the last relic of Communism and the Cold War.”

Poland was omitted largely because it failed to meet the required rate of visa refusals. This rate is considered an indicator of how many applicants plan to overstay their tourist visas and possibly work in the U.S. without permission. Currently, in order to participate in the VWP, a country’s visa refusal rate has to be less than 10%.

In 2008, Poland had a 13.8% visa refusal rate, which actually was considered a big success since only a year earlier it was almost twice as high. Moreover, nowadays fewer Poles seem interested in coming to the U.S. Instead, some look for employment within the EU, where many countries have opened their job markets to Polish citizens.

For these reasons, it seemed that the visa refusal rate would soon naturally fall below the required 10% percent and further negotiations between Polish and U.S. officials would not even be necessary.

However, starting July 1, the required rate will be reduced to 3%, making it much harder for Poland to reach the goal.

“This change is a consequence of a bizarre compromise reached by supporters and opponents of the expansion of the VWP in Congress as part of the ‘Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007,’” explains Pawel Kotowski, a counselor at the Polish Embassy in Washington, DC.

“The required rate can now only be increased back to 10% if the U.S. manages to install biometric air exit systems which will register all the passengers leaving the U.S.by air, a system now only used upon arrival to the U.S. These two things seem to be entirely independent, but that’s how the Congress wrote the law,” Kotowski said.

It is not certain when the air exit system will be installed. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Anna Hinken says it will be tested at two airports for one month starting in June, and it should be installed around the country sometime next year. Kotowski, however, worries that it may take much longer.

Many members of the Polish American community are upset over the arrangement. After an article on the matter ran recently in Nowy Dziennik/the Polish Daily News, many readers expressed their disappointment at the American policy. Some even called for imposing visas on American citizens who want to enter Poland.

Supporters of Poland in Congress have fought for many years for a more liberal approach.

Some, like Senator Barbara Mikulski (D.-Md.), proposed various pieces of legislation to include Poland in the VWP for its merits and its loyalty to America. But the VWP has many opponents who fear its expansion will make it easier for potential terrorists to enter the U.S.

Without the appropriate legislation it seems unlikely that President Obama will do anything about this issue, even though during the presidential campaign he supported the inclusion of Poland in the VWP.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler says that efforts are ongoing to gradually solve the issue.

“Countries like Poland, who are seeking inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program, are working with the Department to meet the program’s requirements. This includes lowering non-immigrant visa refusal rates. The Department is also working with Poland to facilitate safe and secure travel through the U.S.,” he said. Chandler would not, however, provide any details about the process.

This is not enough for Polish Americans and supporters of Poland’s inclusion in the program.

“America’s visa policy still treats Poland as a second-class citizen when we tell a grandmother in Gdansk she needs a visa to visit her grandchildren in America,” wrote Senator Mikulski in a statement sent to the Polish Daily News. “The Visa Waiver Program is a critical tool of the ‘smart power’ strategy that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have laid out to reinvigorate American foreign policy.”

For Poland, inclusion in the VWP has become primarily a political issue.

“We understand that the legislation sets up the rules. But these rules are archaic and do not reflect our current strategic partnership,” stresses Pawel Kotowski. “We think that the American authorities should consider this little gesture for Poland. It would tremendously improve America’s image among Poles who have always held strong pro-American sentiment. It would also improve the relationship with America’s most trusted ally in Europe.”

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