Sunday, September 9, 2007

Give NATO Allies Visa-Free U.S. Travel

Give NATO Allies Visa-Free U.S. Travel
Visitors from Poland and other Eastern European NATO members should be able to enter the U.S. without visas
by Timothy Spence

The White House should act quickly to rectify the unfair treatment Poles and other NATO allies get when they try to travel to the United States.

Among its other failings, George W. Bush's White House has chalked up a dismal record on how it treats America's diminished ranks of allies. Even the "special relationship" with Britain doesn't hold much water, as Tony Blair discovered countless times in his dealings with Washington.

Now Poland is finding out what it's like having friends in Washington.

Poland and Polish-Americans have lobbied for several years to exempt Polish business and leisure travelers from having to obtain visas to enter the United States. Americans going to Poland have enjoyed that privilege since 1991.

Poles must apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw or consulate Krakow, in most cases undergo an interview, and then wait for a decision. Some 20 percent of those applications are rejected.

Poland is not the only ally that suffers this treatment. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia have been excluded from the visa-waiver program. Like Poland, all these NATO allies have contributed to U.S. operations in Iraq.

The United States waives visas for 27 nations, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Western European countries. Only Slovenia among the newer NATO members enjoys visa-free travel.

Poland has, as Bush said recently, "a very unique and strong relationship" with the United States. It goes back more than 200 years, when Polish patriots helped fight British colonial rule in America. Poles fought on the Union side in the Civil War and with the Allies against Nazi Germany. And today, the Polish government has fended off opponents across Europe in support of Bush's plan to base a missile defense system on Polish soil. Beyond those strategic ties, 10 million Americans trace their heritage to Poland, and the Polish language is still spoken in thousands of homes in states like Illinois, Michigan, and New York.


Bush this month signed into law a sweeping domestic security bill that includes a provision giving America's "allies in the war on terrorism" visa-free travel. But it's a hollow gesture, because the law eases rather than eliminates the benchmark for qualifying under the visa-waiver program, which means that for now, Poland and other allies will be left out.

The new law, the Improving America's Security Act of 2007, requires that countries seeking visa waivers have a visa-refusal rate of less than 10 percent. U.S. law states that people with links to terrorism or with criminal records, as well as those who falsify information, can be refused entry. Otherwise, it is up to consular officers to decide who goes and who doesn't, and Poles have had a reputation for bypassing the rules and overstaying their visas.

Polish leaders, pressure groups, and members of the U.S. Congress with strong Polish-American constituencies contend that as a valued NATO ally, Poland deserves fair treatment, and that as a European Union member, the number of Poles trying to beat the system to get work in the United States will diminish. Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president, reportedly raised the visa issue when he met Bush at the White House in July.

To his credit, Bush has expressed support for greater flexibility in the visa-waiver program. But in the drive to approve the domestic security bill, a catch-all measure that covers transportation security and the "advancement of democratic values," U.S. policymakers did no favors for some of their most valued democratic assets abroad. A spokesman for the Polish Embassy in Washington told Transitions Online that "the final result is a little disappointing, but it is a step in the right direction."

America has an obligation to defend itself from terrorists and criminals, and the right to regulate migration to protect its economy. That is a contentious issue, no less in Europe than in the United States. But citizens from newcomer NATO countries do not pose threats to either U.S. security or the economy, and the 70,000 Poles who live in the United States illegally represent a fraction in the 11 million undocumented migrants.

The "right direction" now is to amend the new law and treat citizens of these countries the same way they treat Americans. It is a chance for Bush to team up with influential Democrats – including Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has called a visa waiver for Poland "long overdue" -- and give some of America's most committed allies the equal treatment they deserve.