A deeper look into Poland’s visa problems to US
Stewart Shaw’s mention of the visa requirement for ordinary Polish visitors to the United States deserves attention. Although the visa issue has not received much attention in most of the American media, Congress and the White House have taken it very seriously - by Roy Nasstrom
It does seem unfair to exclude Poland from the visa waiver program. This program allows citizens to enter the United States for a visit with only a passport and without subjection to sometimes humiliating questions that must be answered when applying for a visa. All the nations of western Europe benefit from the program. Nevertheless, with the exception of Slovenia, no former Communist nation of central and eastern Europe is in the program.
Nominally, inclusion requires “governmental stability” and competent treatment of immigration and emigration policies. Rejection from the program is automatic if more than a limited number of visa applicants in the past have been rejected for various reasons, including arrests, serious illness or activities to be judged by consular officials potentially harmful to the United States.
The Bush administration has been trying to get the rule modified to allow nations such as Poland to secure waivers, but Congress has not agreed. A couple of months ago, legislation reduced restrictions somewhat. But the legislation included a clause presented by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that rejected a country’s entry to the program if more than 10% of its visa applicants had been rejected. Poland’s 25-35% rejection rate prevents it from getting into the program, although several other countries could be accepted under the rule. Why should Poland have such a high rate of rejection?
In the early 2000s, the latest period for which I have data, Estonia, Hungary and the Czech Republic had higher crime rates (low by western European standards) than Poland’s. But their visa rejection rate is low enough to make their prospects for entry into the Visa Waiver Program far better than Poland’s. Definitions of crime and statistical techniques vary considerably among countries, making precise comparisons difficult, but the figures do arouse curiosity. Some observers have suggested that, unlike other countries, Poland simply has not actively discouraged visa applications from people likely to be refused. There is no doubt, however, that Poland does have a fairly high unemployment rate by International Labor Organization data — 19 percent three years ago, significant even for Eastern Europe.
But how relevant to American well-being is the restriction to Poland and a few other countries in central and eastern Europe?
Feinstein has said that our immigration policy was “the soft underbelly of national security,” and many in Congress agree with her. Some want to end waivers for all countries. Moreover, an economic issue is important to many legislators. They fear that once in, some visa-holding immigrants would get jobs and stay illegally. Immigrants are a panic-button issue in many places. Those opposed to restrictions have argued simply that it is not fair to exclude some countries of the European Union, but not others. They point also to the number of Americans with Polish relatives. They have noted that most of eastern Europe is no more likely — in the case of Poland, less likely — to be a conduit for Islamic terrorists than western European countries, especially those whose immigrants from former colonies cannot be limited.
In terms of illegal employment, supporters of visa exclusion have noted that Poland has become far better off economically than old statistics data indicate, thus lessening workers’ wishes to search for jobs in the United States. Perhaps most important, supporters of Poland’s inclusion view the country as a vital component of US relations with Europe, especially since the acceptance of former Communist countries into the European Union. They argue that Poland’s influence in eastern and central Europe, always large, is growing, and that its support of the United States is vital to American interests. Although the issue of waivers is highly political, so far it is not a partisan issue.
Geographic location, concepts of terrorism and composition of constituencies and financial supporters play a more important role in determining legislators’ attitudes than political affiliation. Democrats and Republicans stand on both sides of the issue. Illinois Reps. John Shimkus, a Republican, and Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, have jointly authored legislation to end the restriction in the current law. (winonadailynews)
Roy Nasstrom is professor emeritus of educational administration at Winona State University.
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