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Zbigniew Lewicki  25 października 2019

Does Poland need a US visa waiver?

Zbigniew Lewicki  25 października 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

In 1986, the United States initiated the Visa Waiver Program, a mechanism that allows citizens of the countries included in it to stay in the USA for a short time without requiring a visa. Poland is one of the few EU countries which, despite the efforts of subsequent governments, did not obtain such permission. The US Vice President Mike Pence announced on Monday that President Trump will soon nominate Poland to join the program. 

The United States is perceived as an immigrant country, even though no more than 100 million people have come to North America, while the country’s modern population exceeds 300 million. However, matters where free migration and the period when every European could enter the US at any time (provided they were not contagiously ill) ended in the 1920s. The so-called immigration quotas and the visa requirement was then initiated.

Until the mid-1950s, Poles could not go to the United States, for obvious reasons. Most of them, if they emigrated, chose to stay in Western Europe. Loosening the ban on foreign travel following 1956 did not eliminate the problems with obtaining a passport; therefore, Poles did not bother much with the stricter criteria for issuing American visas.

It was only the changes that took place in 1989 that made Poles, interested in travelling to the USA for various reasons, become more aware of the consequences of American visa requirements.

The system evolved, new types of visas were created, but still, certain categories of applicants could not hope to get permission to enter the United States. This concerned those who had arbitrarily extended their stay in the USA in the past, their family members, as well as young unmarried women. Consuls assumed from the start that, Polish women would marry Americans during their stay overseas, and thus acquire permanent residence.

The consuls’ harsh eye

In the American system, the consul, i.e. usually a person starting work in diplomacy, receive negative points (demerits) each time they issue a visa to a person who breaks the US residence rules. They are not, however, given for issuing an incorrect negative decision. Every consul is aware that a Pole travelling to the United States for work will find support in the Polish diaspora community and easily get a job illegally. In this situation, it is natural for young diplomats to act too restrictively for the sake of their careers. 

In 1986, the United States initiated the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Citizens of the countries included can enter the US for up to 90 days without a visa. The prerequisites for joining the VWP are the level of visa refusals for a given country’s citizens not exceeding 3% and no visa requirement for US citizens. The first country to join the program was Great Britain in 1988, followed by Japan a few months later. Currently, it covers 38 countries, and an additional gradually introduced requirement is the use of a biometric passport. The VWP includes, e.g. EU member states (except Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania), and nine more countries (of which all are in the EU, except Croatia and Israel) are covered by the so-called roadmap, i.e. active monitoring of the degree of compliance with the participation criteria. One should note that 10 other countries from this list have already entered the VWP. The status of program member is not awarded irrevocably, however. Argentina and Uruguay have lost it due to failure to meet the criteria.

Starting in the late 1990s, the controversy around American visa applications gradually lost its significance in Poland. Consuls stopped discriminating against unmarried women, for instance, and situations, where someone going to the US for business or tourist purposes wouldn’t receive a visa, were an exception. When that happened, almost always the reason were previous violations of US law, which the applicant had conveniently „forgotten” about. In other words, visas were refused to applicants who were untruthful in their applications, be it regarding the purpose of their trip, or their immediate family members’ previous history. The level of refusals, however, was still too high for Poland to qualify for the VWP. 

The bumpy road to visa-free travel 

The first significant appeals for the abolition of visas to the US appeared at the beginning of the 21st century. It was then that President Aleksander Kwasniewski considered it appropriate to address this issue in light of Poland’s close relations with the USA, established as a result of our participation in interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. One can doubt whether the argument of blood shed by Polish soldiers should be raised in this context, but Kwasniewski’s efforts could prove to be effective. However, it was wrong to merge this postulate (in January 2004) with publically calling for George Bush to support the idea of complete visa waiver in all countries. The American president was completely taken aback by this idea and considered the Polish politician’s behaviour inappropriate (which had its consequences for Kwasniewski’s further career).

Apart from this faux pas, the American authorities considered the argument regarding close alliance relations worthy of consideration and temporarily changed the criterion of the acceptable level of visa refusals from 3% to 5% at the end of the decade, while unofficially declaring that the purpose of this change is primarily to allow Poland to join the VWP. The promises were met as regards many Central European countries, but Poland and the US have returned to the 3% rule.

The unfavourable balance of Polish visa applications is affected by the fact that issuing 10-year visas has been the rule for a long time. During that time, the applicant concerned does not appear before the American consul. Whereas in the event of a refusal, attempts can be repeated at any time, e.g. 10 times over 10 years, and this disturbs statistics.

From time to time, there was also information that one chamber of the US Congress has adopted a bill incorporating Poland into the VWP and we are only waiting for a similar decision of the other chamber. This is a misunderstanding due to the ignorance of the American legislative process. Every year, either chamber accepts hundreds of such initiatives without substantive discussion, fully aware that the other chamber will not take the case. As a result, the draft dies of natural causes, but the parliament member can demonstrate activity on an issue that interests their voters.

Subsequent Polish politicians not only naively accepted such pseudo-news, not realizing their mock-up nature but also actively raised the issue of visa waivers during meetings at the highest level. This was and remains an immoral act. Refusals almost exclusively concern those breaking the law or planning to break it. Polish officials are aware of the abuses committed by some applicants, which does not prevent them from following the principle of „let the law be law, but justice must be on our side.”

Another point raised in the discussions is that since visas are required of Poles, Americans should also be treated in the same way. No one from the American side questions the reciprocity principle in this matter. However, the Polish community in the US is opposing it strongly and effectively, in fear of problems with obtaining a Polish visa for their American passport. Polish consulates operate in only a few American cities, and visa-related formalities cannot always be dealt with by mail. It’s not even worth brooding over the negative consequences of a visa requirement for bringing American investors and businessmen to Poland.

The visa waiver for Poles was promised by Barack Obama. His declaration was repeated by President Donald Trump, and the persistent efforts made in this regard are also being made by the current US ambassador. The level of visa refusals is indeed decreasing and Poland will probably meet the 3% criterion at the end of the US accounting year. However, is this because dishonest applicants have stopped filing applications, or because consuls have been encouraged to treat them more mildly?

Ambassador Mosbacher understands how important success in this widely publicized case would be for politicians of the ruling party. If her efforts do indeed lead to lifting the visa requirement, politicians would be somewhat in her debt. With this, it would be even easier for her to secure concessions on a really interesting issue, i.e. preferential treatment of American interests and investments in Poland.

What will visa-free travel give us?

However, is lifting the visa requirement really in the interest of those that subsequent Polish decision-makers are trying so hard for? Upon arrival in the USA, citizens of non-VWP countries face an immigration officer who makes the final and irrevocable decision on their permission to enter. The whole procedure is primarily based on a background check of the visitor by local representatives of the US government, which is reflected in a visa stuck to one’s passport. Refusals against visa holders are extremely rare.

VWP is not the same as the Schengen agreement. Citizens of the included countries enjoy only the privilege of waiting in a separate queue for the immigration officer at the border. Only that the officer usually does not know any foreign languages and cannot base their decision on the fact of issuing a visa. 

Although there is no official data on this subject, it is known that a significant percentage of citizens from VWP countries do not enter the USA and are escorted back to the return flight. Airlines are responsible for their trip back to their country, but buying a return ticket is the rule. Corporations risk nothing, and are selling more tickets than they would have, had purchasing them required a US visa.

„I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts”. „Be careful what you pray for, because your request may be granted.” Regardless of which of these maxims you choose to follow, the result is the same: honest applicants receive a visa and enter the US, and those wishing to deceive the American authorities, instead of leaving the US Consulate empty-handed, will limit their stay in the US to the airport area. Only then will the already significant anti-American sentiments gain momentum in Poland.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.