Visa bill would ease travel from Poland
by JASON PORTERFIELD
U.S. Representatives Mike Quigley (D-5) and Aaron Schock (R-18) and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill) have reintroduced legislation that will enable Poland and other countries to be included in the Visa Waiver Program.
The waiver program allows nationals of 37 participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business and to stay for 90 days without obtaining a visa. The program was established in 1986 to eliminate barriers to travel, stimulate tourism and permit the State Department to focus consular resources in other areas. The program was tightened following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I am pleased to join in this bicameral and bipartisan effort to bring Poland into the Visa Waiver Program,” Kirk said. “Poland is a strong ally of the United States and plays a critical role in NATO military operations in Europe and the Middle East, including on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Now is the time to stand behind our Polish allies and allow their citizens visa-free travel to the U.S., a privilege that nearly all of our other close democratic allies have enjoyed for years.”
The Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act introduced by the three legislators would improve the national security benefits of the waiver program and boost the economy while expanding the framework to include countries such as Poland, according to the legislators. Quigley and Kirk worked to pass similar legislation last year, but the effort was derailed after Kirk suffered a stroke last January.
“Modernizing the Visa Waiver Program will strengthen our national security, provide valuable tourism revenue and enhance relationships with important allies like Poland, who have been frozen out of the VWP due to its outdated structure,” Quigley said. “I hope this bill will move quickly through Congress and to the president’s desk, opening the doors for Poland once and for all.”
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The current refusal rate threshold is 3 percent, but backers of the measure say that that is an outdated measure that is less relevant to U.S. security or rates of illegal immigration.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 Polish government repealed its visa requirements for U.S. citizens traveling to Poland in 1991.
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 to 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.
Expansion of the program would bring increased revenue to the travel industry, according to the legislators. According to the U.S. Travel Association, more than 17 million visitors to the U.S. were from nations that are part of the waiver program, making up 65 percent of all visitors. While visiting, they spent nearly $61 billion and generated $9 billion in tax revenues, according to the association.
“In Illinois, our state has greatly benefited from the contributions of the local Polish community,” Schock said. “The Polish community has achieved high levels of home ownership, education and income, all characteristics we should continue to embrace and build upon by including Poland as part of the Visa Waiver Program.
The House bill is supported by Illinois Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-4), Adam Kinzinger (R-16), Dan Lipinski (D-3), Jan Schakowsky (D-9), Brad Schneider (D-10) and John Shimkus (R-15), according to the legislators.