The Visa Barrier

By Janusz Reiter, Poland’s ambassador to the United States (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/08/07):

Congress’s recent changes to American visa laws will be of little comfort to people in Central Europe who wish to travel to this country. Citizens of these countries will continue to undergo visa application procedures whose rules they do not understand and which they consider to be anachronistic, unjust and even humiliating.

American visa policy is driven by two concerns: fear of unwanted immigrants and concern about U.S. security. These concerns are reasonable, but it’s difficult to understand why they should create a barrier against people from Central Europe.

Those who think that the first priority of every Pole is to settle in Chicago have a rather outdated view of how things are in my country today. First, the economic situation has changed radically in Poland and in other countries in the region in recent years. Second, those seeking jobs outside of Poland can find them much closer to home — in Britain, Ireland and other places in the European Union, which have opened their job markets to people from the new member states.

Poland continues to be excluded from the American visa waiver program, which allows quicker and easier entry to the United States. The main problem is an arbitrary and inflexible standard on the rejection rate for people in a particular country applying for U.S. non-immigrant visas. The requirement is meant to exclude those who might overstay their visas and seek work in the United States. But it has little relationship to the situations of Poland and the rest of Central Europe.

The waiver program is designed for visitors who want to come to the United States on business, to see their families or just to go shopping in New York. They are the kind of people who are representative of the new Poland, visitors whom the United States should be trying to attract. Instead, it keeps them away.

What about security? Central Europe is one of the safest and most stable regions on the continent. And the countries in that region have sided with the United States in the global fight against terrorism. Poland has fought in Iraq from the very beginning of the operation and is also one of the biggest contributors to the mission in Afghanistan.

Warsaw and the other Central European capitals have declared that they are ready to work with the United States to gain better control of the movement of people. Indeed, expansion of the visa waiver program would bring about more, not less, security for the United States and Europe. This is one of the reasons that the U.S. administration has supported including Central European allies in the program.

Many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have also endorsed this change. But they failed, unfortunately, to pass a law that would enable the countries of Central Europe to join the waiver program.

While many Poles were shocked and angered by this latest failure, others saw it as not particularly important to them. According to one opinion poll, 80 percent considered the decision on visas important for the nation, but only 39 percent said it was relevant to them or their families.

This isn’t good news for the United States. It shows that for Poles, traveling to America does not have the same importance it did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. More and more Poles seem to be saying: “America doesn’t want us? We’ll travel elsewhere. The doors of the European Union are wide open to us. The European passport allows us to travel without visas to dozens of countries around the world.”

But what do such attitudes mean for future relations between the United States and Central Europe, which is still one of the most pro-American regions in the world? The mainstream political elite will certainly remain committed to an alliance with the United States. But what made this part of Europe unique was widespread popular support for close cooperation with the United States. This support is threatened. If America is to be considered only as a partner in the arena of security — important but not dominant in the lives of Central Europeans — the “American dream” will fade in the region. Perhaps in time someone will ask: Who lost Central Europe?

This need not happen. It is possible to lower the visa rejection rate; the rules that American consuls have to follow in granting visas could be rethought. Such a process would require more cooperation between U.S. authorities and those in countries seeking to join the visa waiver program — overall a good thing.

The United States played a major role in Central Europe’s fight to free itself of communism. It was extremely successful in transforming Cold War enemies into friends in the free world. Now it needs to seek similar success in dealing with its new friends.