Poland sends troops to fight alongside U.S. soldiers and considers itself a strong ally, but it's the only Central European country whose citizens cannot travel to America without a visa, a sore point that Poles hope President Obama will rectify when he visits their nation Friday.
Of the 25 European nations that signed a mutual travel pact in 1985, only Poland is still petitioning the U.S. to be allowed into the State Department's Visa Waiver Program. Entry in the program allows visitors from approved countries to travel in the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.
Mr. Obama pledged last December to make the issue a priority, promising Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski that he would solve the question "during my presidency." Administration officials have said the president likely will outline a plan during his visit.
Action on visa waivers would please lawmakers who have been pressing the administration on the subject, such as Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. "We believe the president will be very helpful," she said.
Some of the most outspoken advocates for a Polish visa-waiver program are lawmakers from Mr. Obama's home-state delegation of Illinois. Mr. Obama sought out his Irish roots at the start of his European trip, but his hometown of Chicago bills itself as the largest Polish city outside Poland.
"The United States should stand by its commitment to this strong, democratic ally," said Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, Illinois Democrat, noted that Poland will assume the EU presidency in July.
"The president's visit is the right time for him to recommit to passing legislation that will enable Poland to join the Visa Waiver Program," Mr. Lipinkski said.
But the waiver program also has its critics, who argue that Washington too often eases rules for traveling to the United States. In all, 36 nations now enjoy visa-free travel to America. The last waiver was granted in 2008, to Greece.
Michael Cutler, who enforced U.S. immigration law for 30 years as an agent for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the visa process "helps that beleaguered inspector who has to make a 'yea' or 'nay' decision" about foreign travelers at U.S. ports of entry."
"It really adds another layer of security to our country," said Mr. Cutler, who has testified before Congress on immigration law numerous times.
Opponents of the program point out that the U.S. system has no way of tracking visitors who overstay their welcome, creating a potential security risk. The government estimates that at least 4.5 million visitors per year overstay their visas, but Mr. Cutler thinks the real number is about twice that high.
"The whole program is a corruption of our security," Mr. Cutler said. "No country should have [a waiver]. They're expanding a program that facilitates the arrival of aliens in our country."
In a letter to the president last month, Mr. Kirk, Ms. Mikulski and four other lawmakers noted that Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. They also reminded the commander in chief that Poland "significantly contributed" to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that 2,500 Polish troops currently serve in Afghanistan. At least 24 Polish soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.
Bipartisan legislation pending in the House and Senate would restructure the outdated visa-waiver program and make it more secure, these lawmakers said.
The bills would make an overstay rate of less than 3 percent the primary qualifying criteria for a nation's membership in the program. Current policy uses a country's rate of visa refusals, which many experts think is an outdated method of assessing security risks.
Among the newest members of the Visa Waiver Program are the Czech Republic, Malta, Slovakia, Latvia and South Korea.
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