From Illinois Public Radio - News Local/State -

Polish Community May Get Travel Perk from Immigration Reform

Poles line up in front of the Visa Section of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007.

Poles line up in front of the Visa Section of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2007. (Alik Keplicz/AP)

Many in Chicago’s Polish community hope immigration reform will finally deliver a travel perk they’ve long been seeking: Poland’s inclusion on the list of countries who don't need visas to travel to the U.S.

The visa requirement has long been a gripe among many in Chicago’s sizeable Polish-American community, who perceive it as a diplomatic slight. They cite Poland’s assistance during U.S. military operations (that were otherwise unpopular in the European Union), and wonder why they’re among just a handful of European countries excluded from the Visa Waiver Program.

“U.S. citizens are not required (to have) a Polish visa to come to Poland for 90 days,” said Robert Rusiecki, Deputy Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago. “And over the years when Poland has been a member of NATO, we proved to be a strong ally for the United States and we were everywhere we were required, including Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Ruscieki said Polish tourists to the U.S. should be treated the same as U.S. tourists to Poland.

To get a tourist visa to the U.S., prospective Polish visitors have to fill out a detailed online application, pay a non-refundable $160 visa fee, and schedule a screening interview at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw or the U.S. Consulate General in Krakow. In many cases, U.S. officials refuse to issue the visa, which means applicants lose whatever money they spent. By contrast, many of Poland’s neighboring countries in the EU are exempt from this process. Their citizens are, like all non-U.S. citizens, simply checked at a U.S. port of entry after they get off their plane.

“It’s long overdue to include Poland in the Visa Waiver Program, especially for a city like Chicago, who probably has the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois). The City of Chicago is home to more than 175,000 people who claim Polish ancestry, but roughly 940,000 are estimated to live in the metro region.

Quigley has introduced the Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act, along with U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Illinois) and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). The bill is the latest version of previous legislation that he has introduced in Congress. All have aimed to change the Visa Waiver Program’s criteria such that they would allow Poland and some other countries to participate—and so far, all have died.

“I tell my colleagues this isn’t your father’s Visa Waiver Program,” Quigley said. “It gives us so much more information, it actually makes us safer.”

Quigley said his previous attempts to change the Visa Waiver Program hit a wall because some legislators worried it could ease the way for dangerous people to gain entry to the U.S. But he said a tighter, post-9/11 system to capture biometric information—namely, fingerprints—from people who enter the U.S. has mitigated that threat.

“We’re dealing with countries that we have good relationships with, we’re getting information about our travelers that’s far better than if we don’t have a Visa Waiver Program,” he said.

Quigley is also a sponsor of the Jobs Originating through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act, introduced by Rep. Joseph Heck (R-Nevada), which emphasizes projected economic gains from increased tourism to the U.S., should more countries be allowed into the Visa Waiver Program. Proponents of the legislation cite figures from the U.S. Travel Association, projecting an additional $7 billion of revenues from visitors coming from additional countries in the program.

Some believe a good portion of Polish tourist dollars would be spent right here, in Chicago.

“People in Poland know about this place,” said Dan Pogorzelski, Executive Director of the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce, whose members include a number of Polish-American businesses. “We’re trying to brand this neighborhood as a tourist destination to Poles.”

Several of the same principles behind expanding the Visa Waiver Program are also embedded in Section 4506 of the mammoth immigration reform bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate. Quigley, and others in Chicago’s Polish-American leadership, believe the momentum of immigration reform may finally propel the effort forward.

But a recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggests a possible snag with how the proposed bills would change the program. Currently, countries may participate in the Visa Waiver Program if they have a combination of low overstay rates and very low refusal rates. Overstay rates are the percentage of people who come to the U.S. from a given country, and then stay beyond the valid period of their visas. The refusal rate is the percentage of applicants from a given country that are denied visas. This can be for a variety of reasons, but often the visa is denied on suspicion that the applicant will try to immigrate illegally to the U.S. by overstaying their visa.

Quigley and other proponents of expanding the Visa Waiver Program champion the idea of lifting the limit on refusal rates if a country has proven to be a good ally of the U.S. This would effectively get Poland in the door. But it also assumes that the U.S. has a good handle on what the overstay rates are from each country. According to the GAO report, that’s simply not the case.

“DHS [Department of Homeland Security] has not yet implemented a biometric exit capability, but has planning efforts underway to assess options for such a capability at airports and seaports,” the report states.

Since 1994, DHS and its predecessors have not reported country-by-country overstay rates, though they have been federally required to do so. The department has yet to persuade airports and airlines to implement a systematic procedure to fingerprint travelers just before they board planes to leave the U.S.

Last month, that meant DHS had upward of 1 million people that it knew had arrived in the U.S., but could not verify whether they had left. The report notes that five of the nine 9/11 hijackers were people who had overstayed their temporary visas.

“It makes no sense to go forward with this without the data system that we need to serve as a sound basis for judging the readiness of some of these countries,” said Jessica Vaughan, Director of Policy Studies at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC. “The risk is that if the standards that we set are not high enough, we’re going to open up a new avenue for illegal immigration to occur, because people are able to come with the presumption that they’re going to be eligible.”

Quigley said he’s not concerned about the GAO’s report on a leaky visa tracking system.

“The processes are in place to improve it, we think that the numbers will be published,” he said. “I think Poland was put at a disadvantage by the old criteria, and it was a different time as well.”

In particular, Quigley and many others point to Poland’s 2004 inclusion in the EU as a major turning point. They say now that Poles can move freely around Europe for employment, they’re much less likely to attempt a risky illegal move to the U.S.

But Vaughan said that without precise overstay numbers, it’s not clear that Poland—or any country, for that matter—would qualify for the Visa Waiver Program, even if legislation passes to expand it.