Senator Mark Kirk (R–IL) and Congressman Mike Quigley (R–IL) returned from a four-day trip to Poland this week. The bipartisan pair made the journey to discuss an important topic in U.S.–Polish relations: admitting Poland into the Visa Waiver Program.
Under the Visa Waiver Program, visitors from friendly member nations are able to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa. To ensure that dangerous individuals do not enter the United States through the program, a visitor must first submit information through the program’s online portal, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Once vetted and cleared, a traveler is then pre-approved for visa-free travel for up to two years.
Since its inception in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) has reduced the workload on U.S. consulate offices while encouraging travel to and tourism in the United States. The program also offers tremendous benefits in terms of economics, public diplomacy, and national security. In 2008 alone, nearly 17 million visitors entered the United States, spending more than $100 billion in U.S. restaurants, hotels, and shops. These visitors not only infuse much-needed money into the U.S. economy, but they also carry home with them their experiences and perceptions of American culture, helping to improve America’s image throughout the world. Likewise, security measures added since the program’s inception have made it an important counterterrorism tool.
In 2010, more than 152,000 non-immigrant visitors entered the United States from Poland. Yet despite that country’s longstanding interest in joining the Visa Waiver Program, these visitors were made to apply for visas before coming to the United States. Given the extensive benefits of the VWP and the long record of U.S.–Polish cooperation, Poland’s exclusion from the program doesn’t make sense.
Unfortunately, neither does the measure that is holding back Poland’s admittance. In 2007, Congress passed legislation granting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the ability to consider the admittance of nations with visa refusal rates between 3 percent and 10 percent that otherwise met the requirements of the program. The conditions of this authority, however, centered on the ability of DHS to meet a mandate of biometrically tracking the exits of all foreign visitors from U.S. airports by July 1, 2009. Despite the fact that biometric air exit has little to do with the VWP (only roughly 1 percent of VWP entrants are believed to overstay) and adds little in terms of national security, when DHS failed to meet the mandate, its ability to waive the 3 percent visa refusal rate expired.
Poland has signed all of the necessary security and travel agreements needed to gain admittance into the program. The only thing holding it back now is its 9.8 percent visa refusal rate. Instead of holding VWP expansion hostage to ridiculous mandates, Congress should decouple the biometric exit mandate from the program. Likewise, Congress and the Administration should move to use visa overstay rates, rather than visa refusal rates, as a metric for admittance into the program. With Poland’s overstay rate at around 2 percent in 2010 (incredibly low compared to the total visa overstay rate of approximately 40 percent), this change would advance the country’s admittance and would serve as a better overall metric for the program.
Representatives Kirk and Quigley’s visit to Poland should serve as a reminder to the rest of Congress that it is well past time to do better for our ally and admit Poland into the VWP.