Kirk, Quigley push visa bill for Poland
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and U.S. Representative Mike Quigley called for passage of a bill that would allow Polish citizens unrestricted travel to the United States without a visa at an Aug. 21 press conference at the Polish American Association, 3848 N. Cicero Ave.
"There is bicameral and bipartisan support for this effort, which I think will directly support the Chicagoland economy," Kirk said. "Based on the numbers that we got from the State Department, we think that roughly 67,000 visitors will come per year."
"Since the Berlin Wall came down, the Polish economy has grown 10 times, and we want a part of that action to come to us," Kirk said. "Sixty-seven thousand (visitors) would fill a lot of hotel rooms in Chicago."
Chicago is home to nearly one million citizens of Polish ancestry, the highest concentration of any city outside Warsaw. More than 67,000 nonimmigrant visas to the United States were issued in Poland in 2012.
The Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act, which is sponsored by Kirk and Quigley, would improve the national security benefits of the waiver program and boost the economy, according to the legislators. The legislators previously worked to pass the legislation, but the effort was derailed after Kirk suffered a stroke last January.
The act would open the door for Poland to be included in the waiver program, which allows nationals of 37 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business without obtaining a visa and stay for 90 days. The program was established in 1986 to eliminate barriers to travel and stimulate tourism. It was tightened following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Quigley said that he has been pushing for the legislation since he went to Congress. "As time goes on, we realized that sometimes we have to appeal to more than one aspect of a person to get them to do the right thing," he said. "This became extraordinarily important as a jobs bill for the United States."
Quigley said that passing the bill would create jobs and improve the economy. "The average international tourist that comes to the United States spends three times what the domestic tourist does," he said.
Thirty European countries currently are eligible for visa-free travel to the United States. The Polish government repealed its visa requirement for U.S. citizens traveling to that country in 1991, according to the legislators.
"All those countries need to only buy a plane ticket to enter the United States," Kirk said.
"The irony is that we spent 4 1/2 years reminding people that this is not about immigration," Quigley said. "This is about travel, but it’s part of an immigration bill.
"This is not your father’s visa waiver program. This is something that enhances our security and our economy."
"There is a great disparity here and a great disservice to many people who live in the Chicagoland area and their friends and family who live in Poland," Quigley said.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, about 65 percent of visitors from overseas in 2010 were from countries that are in the program, and they spent nearly $61 billion and generated $9 billion in tax revenue.
Poland’s gross domestic product has increased from $64.5 billion in 1990 to $514.5 billion in 2011. The Czech Republic entered the waiver program in 2008, and its temporary visitor traffic to the U.S. increased from 42,923 in 2007 to 50,276 the following. If Poland had a similar increase in traffic, it would result in an additional 11,390 visitors a year, with nearly $50 million in additional spending, according to the association.
"Having in mind our friendly attitude with the United States and our support of American policy, I think it would be nice to have the visa waiver program passed very soon," Polish consul general Paulina Kapuscinska said. "It would be nice to be, like our neighbors in Europe who are members of the visa waiver program, included."
"When it was expanded in 2008 to include countries such as Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary and South Korea, our chamber has looked into the travel numbers and travel from those countries jumped within a year or two by an average 20 to 30 percent," Polish American Chamber of Commerce executive director Bogdan Pukszta said. "It would be, from the chamber’s perspective, a very rational and important move to do something about immigration reform this fall and about the visa waiver program to Poland."
Current law uses the visa refusal rate to determine a nation’s eligibility to participate in the program. The rate is the percentage of visa applications denied by U.S. consular officers.
The current refusal rate threshold is 3 percent, but backers of the measure say that that is an outdated measure that is less relevant to U.S. security or rates of illegal immigration. That number has kept Poland from joining the program.
Poland is one of the few European nations that are excluded from the program, in large part due to a history of visitors overstaying their visas, according to the legislators.
The legislation would update eligibility criteria for applicant countries by requiring a low rate of foreign nationals who overstay their visas. An overstay rate of less than 3 percent of foreign nationals who remain in the country after their visas expire is proposed.
Should a country meet that criteria, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security would be able to raise the visa refusal rate from 3 percent to 10 percent on a country-by-country basis. Poland’s refusal rate last year was 9.3 percent, according to the State Department.
The bill makes several other modifications that are designed to improve national security and make calculations required for entering the program more efficient, according to the legislators.
Under the current program, travelers also are required to have authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization prior to travel, to be screened at the port of entry into the United States and to be enrolled in the Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program which collects biometric information such as fingerprints and photographs.
The current law prevents adding countries to the program that are over the refusal rate threshold until the Department of Homeland Security implements a biometric system that tracks people as they enter and leave the country, according to the State Department.