By Matthew Stenberg, Transatlantic Community Analyst
The U.S. Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of 37 countries with high security standards and close relations with the United States to travel to the country with only online registration and no formal visa process. This program has resulted in significant cost savings to the federal government by forgoing formal review processes for applicants from these countries. A 2002 GAO study found that disbanding the VWP after September 11th would have resulted in initial costs of at least $739 million with subsequent annual costs of a minimum $522 million for necessary increases in staff and office space to process additional visa applications. Those cost savings can be presumed to have increased in the past ten years, with the Visa Waiver Program having been extended to an additional nine countries.
The Visa Waiver Program is currently in talks with several other governments to further expand the program. Several countries around the world have been proposed as candidates for the VWP; all have different political champions, often owing to Congressional domestic constituencies. Congressman Crowley of New York introduced a resolution in April 2012 supporting Brazil, Chile, and Argentina’s efforts to join the VWP (Argentina was a previous member, but lost its designation in 2002 following a financial crisis). In May 2012 Congressman Sherman of California introduced H.R. 5850, a bill with 34 cosponsors that would introduce the Visa Waiver Program to Israel. Congressman Faleomavaega – the nonvoting delegate from American Samoa – drafted a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting Taiwanese inclusion in the VWP with 11 Congressional cosigners last December; his efforts came to fruition this week when Taiwan was added to the program.
Though these countries all have public support for their inclusion in the program, none has attracted the public attention of Poland, which has been a salient political and diplomatic issue since 2005. Then-Congressman (now Chicago Mayor) Emanuel sponsored House Resolution 78 in February 2005 calling for the State Department to assist Poland in reducing its visa refusal rate so that it could gain eligibility for the program. Congresswoman Jackson-Lee of Texas and Congresswoman Johnson of Connecticut both introduced legislation to formally include Poland in the VWP expansion in 2005; however, their efforts never got out of committee. Congressman English included Poland in a list of prospective additions that similarly remained stuck in committee. In January 2012, formal legislation was introduced again in both the House and Senate. Representative Quigley and Senator Kirk of Illinois and Senator Mikulksi of Maryland introduced the Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act which would restructure the VWP to include the consideration of overstay rates in addition to visa rejection rates, thereby making Poland immediately eligible for inclusion. Beyond the Congressional level, Poland’s case received official support from President Obama in a December 2010 meeting with President Komorowski. Obama subsequently sent a letter to Congress in May 2011 reiterating his support.
Support for Poland has not solely been limited to politicians. Think tanks ranging from the Atlantic Council to the Cato Institute to the Heritage Foundation have come out in support of its inclusion. Newspaper editorials in papers from Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington D.C., and New York have supported Polish efforts. The New York based Polish language daily Nowy Dziennik created an online campaign to call attention to the issue. The leading opponent to Polish inclusion, Representative Smith of Texas, has made it clear that his issue is not with Poland’s candidacy but with his disapproval of the structure of the VWP itself.
Notably, Poland is the only member of the Schengen area that is not part of the Visa Waiver Program. Residents of Schengen members can travel within an area of 26 European countries without even going through passport checkpoints. Poland’s participation in the European free movement of people without significant incident and economic strength indicate that it is no more likely a threat for illegal immigration or overstays than Hungary, Greece, Spain, Italy, or Portugal – states that are EU and Schengen area members and American allies. In contrast to these states, moreover, Poland’s economy has been robust in the past several years. It was the only European economy not to decline in 2009 and still have a growth rate of 2.7% forecast for 2012 even as the Eurozone crisis continues.
Despite broad-based and long-standing support for its inclusion, Poland has not been making major strides in visa policy. Instead, recent U.S. attention has centered on other bilateral relationships. Over the past year, two separate programs have made it easier for Russians to visit the United States. Additional capacity for processing Brazilian and Chinese visas will help speed applications and reduce costs for tourists and businessmen alike. And Taiwan has, of course, been successfully admitted to the program. In no way are these negative developments; however, they are demonstrative of the fact that Poland’s progress has been slow despite its strong case for inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program.
The delays and obstruction of Poland’s efforts to join the VWP have harmed American diplomatic relations with an important ally. Governor Romney’s visit to Poland in August hoped to capitalize on some of these tensions while garnering domestic votes. Regardless of who takes office in November, Poland has waited long enough. Polish inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program should be a diplomatic priority as it would improve American relations with a key European ally, reduce processing costs, and increase the economic impact of Polish tourists in the United States. Elected officials at all levels of government have repeatedly expressed their support: it is time they backed their words with action.