By Joanna Diane Caytas -Guest Author
These days, they might not have got one.
Keeping the homeland secure rather indiscriminately from allies and friends alike became one of the most ill-advised and unfortunate features of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy – with detrimental effects on the battle for the hearts and minds in international relations. While 30 European countries, including post-communist Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia already participate in the U.S. visa waiver program since years, Poland, a committed major U.S. ally in each and every major military conflict of the 20th century, does not. As president Obama famously said, “no country in Europe loves or loved the United States as much as Poland does or has in the past.” If there was any substance to the previous administration’s rhetoric conjuring up a “New Europe”, Poland had to be Exhibit A: with almost 40 million residents, it is by far the largest and fastest-growing market among the European Union’s Eastern enlargement, the largest addition to NATO with a significant contingent in Iraq, a regional leader in the Partnership for Peace program, a member of the Schengen Treaty.
Polish citizens continue to be denied practically important benefits of the visa waiver program ostensibly because 30% of tourist visa applicants are declined by U.S. consular officers. That rate is so high for the sole reason that the officers “suspect that applicants are going to work in the United States illegally.” Famously, it is not logically possible to prove a negative. The rejection threshold for a country to qualify for the U.S. visa waiver program has been set at 3%. Polish rejection statistics are crassly disproportionate, as a comparison shows: Poland and Lithuania were a single country for centuries – what, aside from its diminutive size, makes Lithuania different today? Its per-capita GDP certainly is much lower, so the motivation of its citizens to seek a better life in the U.S. should be much higher. Its value and track record as a military ally, aside from outposts closer to Russia, is negligible. While the U.S. government claims that some 70,000 Polish citizens have overstayed their visa in the past, it is also true that 75 million Americans claim at least partial Polish descent. Mexico, with three times the population of Poland, gave the U.S. almost one hundred times the number of undocumented Polish aliens.
Perhaps more importantly, continuation of the U.S. visa waiver criteria would not stand up to legal scrutiny if a rational standard of equal justice applied and the matter were subject to judicial review: while 30% of Polish applicants are denied visas on the mere suspicion by a consular officer of possible future overstaying, this disproportionate suspicion is unsupported by rational justification other than the fact that Polish undocumented aliens exist at all. A few exist, of course, but that is true of any country. This provides no valid reason to continue imposing a truly cumbersome visa requirement on 40 million Polish citizens that, for example, forces senior citizens wishing to visit relatives to travel hundreds of miles for a personal appearance for a mandatory visa interview at the nearest U.S. consulate. It would be worth researching my suspicion that the vast majority of undocumented Poles had, in fact, arrived in the U.S. before Poland joined the European Union in 2004. It is easy to see why: used to a fairly high standard of social benefits including universal health care at home, work-minded Poles can now find far better, risk-free employment in Northern and Western Europe including low-cost bus trips home, without a need to convince some border agent that they are “not terrorists.”
Today, Poland is growing rapidly, a fully industrialized and increasingly service-oriented emerging market, a hub in Central and Eastern Europe. Unemployment is barely higher than in the U.S. today. Of all post-communist countries already participating in the U.S. visa waiver program, Poland’s per capita GDP is higher than any other except for Slovenia and Slovakia. While foreign direct investment in the U.S. amounts to about 16% of GDP, Poland boasts more than twice that, 35% of GDP. This is an enormous vote of investor confidence in the local economy, and certainly not the harbinger of an exodus of skilled or unskilled labor.
Given the much higher cost of urban living in the U.S and a near total absence of medical and social benefits for unskilled labor, the proverbial expatriate Polish maid or Polish plumber are incomparably better off today in Britain, Germany or Italy where they neither need a visa nor a work permit. Hence, the diehard myth of some irresistible temptation to overstay U.S. visas to “make a quick buck” is no longer credible 22 years after Poland embraced capitalism in 1989. It is also nigh impossible to argue that inclusion of Poland in the U.S. visa waiver program would create some type of moral hazard: skilled labor typically will not turn to undocumented employment, and unskilled labor from Eastern Europe typically cannot or will not compete on price with Latin American, Asian or African undocumented immigrants already so readily available in the U.S.
Government statistics show that, overall, well over 5 million undocumented aliens from a variety of countries have entered the U.S. on a legal visa. This amounts to between one-third and one-half of the overall undocumented population. Visa requirements have appear not to have stemmed illegal immigration at all. While it is undeniable that an occasional Polish maid or construction crew might enter as tourists and sometimes depart a bit later than permitted, it should be noted that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service upgraded their IT capabilities by leaps and bounds so that it is now easy for any immigration officer to determine if the traveler before him has ever overstayed his visa in the past – a determination would be grounds to deny the person re-entry and lead to deportation at his or her own expense. As overstaying becomes part of their permanent immigration record, extremely few individuals would choose to forgo future travel home along with any possibility of inviting relatives, compounded by substantial risk of deportation if caught out of status, or to abandon hopes of returning to the U.S. Poles do not have the option of the Rio Grande, nor would almost any consider entering through the woods of Maine. But if all this holds true, then all stated rational purposes of continuing the U.S. visa requirement (aside from national security which is not a significant consideration in the case of Poland) have in reality already been accomplished by improved electronic record keeping and has thus rendered the visa requirement for Polish visitors moot.
Not one valid reason remains to deny visa-free entry to the citizens of a country resoundingly acknowledged as America’s most loyal ally and friend besides Great Britain, whose intensely pro-American population once served as the model for the legend of a ‘New Europe.’ While the considerable expense for maintaining reliable electronic arrivals and departure records has become a necessary bureaucratic overhead after 9/11, continuing to devote resources to processing Polish visa applications is not. Since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, Poland unilaterally abolished visa requirements for U.S. visitors. More than twenty years later, the U.S. has yet to reciprocate. This stretches unacceptably the oft-cited “need for a transitory period.” The U.S. Senate approved in 2006 visa-free admission of Polish visitors by way of an amendment to an immigration reform bill. But since then, the matter has been mired hopelessly in the arcane politics and horse-trading surrounding U.S. immigration reform in general. It is difficult to imagine a cost-cutting move by the U.S. government that would create a bigger, more instantly effective surge of foreign goodwill and tourism than by abolishing visa requirements for Poles. Seeing this demand persistently ignored has already led the European Union to threaten imposition of visa requirements for U.S. citizens in all of Europe as a matter of reciprocity if the “Polish visa question” cannot be resolved now, at long last.
Bizarrely enough, modern-day Kościuszkos and Pułaskis could end up needing a European visa if it occurred to them to visit their folks at home….
The U.S. Visa Waiver Program was created in 1986, during the Cold War, in an era when surgical removal of pointless and ineffectual bureaucratic malignancy was still a programmatic priority to the Reagan administration.
Can we start finding our way back to the future?