It’s unsurprising that the White House recently scheduled a presidential visit to Poland in conjunction with the upcoming G-20 Summit. The U.S. State Department describes this Central European country of 38.6 million people as a stalwart ally and “one of the United States’ strongest partners on the continent in fostering transatlantic security and prosperity regionally, throughout Europe, and the world.”
What is surprising is that, despite historical ties dating back to the American Revolutionary War, the strong alliance, and a robust domestic Polish-American population of about 10 million, the U.S. government hasn’t found a way to treat Polish citizens the same way as it does those living in most other European countries when it comes to visiting the United States. Since it shed communism in 1989 after 42 years of domination and became a free and democratic state, Poland has unsuccessfully tried to gain entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
The U.S. failure to grant VWP status to Poland is an embarrassment to many Americans as well as a major disappointment and irritant to Poles and a succession of its leaders. Poland’s former president and Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa described VWP entry as a “matter of honor” for Poland.
In a speech before the Polish American Congress in September 2016, Candidate Trump promised to remedy this problem by making it possible for Poland to become part of the VWP. His promise echoes that of his presidential predecessor, Barack Obama, who promised to do the same several years earlier but didn’t deliver. Several previous attempts by U.S. Congress members to legislate a fix to bring Poland into the program have also failed. Congress is now considering The Poland Waiver Act of 2017 (H.R. 2388).
What is the VWP? The U.S. established the VWP in 1986 primarily to facilitate commerce and tourism between friendly nations. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security administers the program in consultation with the State Department. Since its inception, the program has evolved into a security partnership with special passport and security upgrades to detect and prevent terrorists, criminals, and other mala fide actors from entering each country. There are presently 38 countries in VWP, 29 of them European. The program features reciprocal agreements allowing citizens to travel on business or pleasure without visas and no application fees between member countries for up to 90 days.
What has Poland done to gain VWP entry? Three important ingredients for gaining VWP status are national wealth, a high Human Development Index, and a low-security risk. Poland scores well on each count. It has seen its economy dramatically grow to 25th in the world at $1.1 trillion. The 2017 United Nations Development Report classified Poland as a “very high” Human Development Index country with its 78 years average life expectancy, 99.8 percent literacy rate for males and females, and $27,700 plus average annual income. And with its strong American ties, NATO membership, participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq military coalitions, and the general absence of radical Islamic terror attacks on its soil Poland clearly isn’t a security threat. Moreover, it has implemented and adopted VWP-related security measures and information-sharing protocols asked of them by the U.S. government.
What is preventing Poland’s VWP entry? A provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act which requires a visa refusal rate of 3 percent or less to qualify for the program — and Poland’s FY 2016 visa refusal rate according to the State Department is 5.7 percent, which although is a dramatic drop from previous years still doesn’t pass the congressionally-mandated program muster. The State Department reported that 186,555 Polish citizens applied for nonimmigrant visas to visit the U.S. for business or pleasure. Each paid a non-fundable fee of $160. Of the applicants, U.S. consular officers refused to approve visas for 10,060 of them.
However, using the visa refusal rate alone to exclude a country from the program can be somewhat misleading. For example, the prime concern for U.S. immigration officials is not necessarily the percentage of visa refusals by U.S. consular officers, but the actual number of nonimmigrants from VWP and other countries who overstay their 90-day visit. DHS’s FY 2016 Overstay Report reveals that VWP members United Kingdom had 20,670 suspected overstays; Germany had 18,780; Italy had 14,896; Spain had 11,716; and France had 10,358 compared to non-VWP Poland’s 2,787 suspected overstays!
President Trump can take the following actions to facilitate Poland’s VWP entry and/or make it easier for Polish citizens to visit the United States. One, he can urge Congress to pass the Poland Waiver Act of 2017; two, he can ask the DHS and State Department secretaries to determine the reasons why Poles are being refused visas at a greater percentage than INA requires and to determine if any legal and administrative remedies are available for Poland to achieve a lower rate; and three, ask the Secretary of State to determine if the $160 visa application fee for Polish citizens can be legally waived — as it has been for VWP member countries and like the Polish government has already done for U.S. citizens traveling to Poland.
One is hard-pressed to find a better friend and more loyal U.S. ally than Poland. For that reason, President Trump should keep his promise and use his leadership ability and/or executive power to ensure this matter doesn’t languish in the Federal bureaucracy or Congress any longer. Making it easier for the Poland’s citizens to visit the U.S. on business and pleasure would further cement the bilateral relationship and surely please millions of them and their American cousins.