President Obama’s trip to Poland last week offered a glimmer of hope regarding Poland’s potential membership in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
The President not only endorsed the idea in conversations with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski but then sent a letter to Congress the same day lending his support for the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011, a bill sponsored by Senator Mark Kirk (R–IL) and Representative Mike Quigley (D–IL). The bill would make key changes in the program and likely help Poland and other aspiring countries finally obtain membership.
The VWP allows travelers from member countries to come to the United States for a period of 90 days without the need for a visa. In exchange, the U.S. requires that member countries institute security protocols and engage in information-sharing with the U.S. These relationships have benefited the U.S. in terms of tracking terrorist travel and preventing the use of lost or stolen passports.
The problem right now is that the program is being inhibited by regulations put forth by Congress in 2007 that linked expansion of the program to deployment of a system to biometrically track the exit of foreign travelers.
However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) successfully tracks visitors now through biographic means, so it is tough to see why VWP should be hamstringed by the failure of DHS to push forward with such a costly and unneeded system.
The Kirk/Quigley bill would help solve these roadblocks while maintaining security. For instance, the act would switch to the use of overstays (how many people actually stay in the U.S. after their visa has expired) as a condition for membership. The current standard is a visa refusal rate, which is a subjective determination made by a consular officer and doesn’t really indicate whether an individual traveler represents an actual security or illegal immigration risk. The bill would also decouple VWP from the biometric exit mandate—a good move—which would likely pave the way for membership for countries like Poland.
The President’s endorsement should be welcome news to Poland and other aspiring VWP countries. However, next steps are now at the feet of Congress.