Poles Seek Support for America-Bound Emigrants

A recent exchange between Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski (search) and President Bush over visa requirements reveals a growing discontent among Poles who feel slighted by the United States despite their role as a stalwart ally in the war on terror, say some international observers.

“Poland opened up its borders to Americans over 10 years ago, but there is no reciprocity,” said an official at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., who did not want to be named. “We would like to see more sensitivity from the Americans.”

At the heart of the issue is Poland’s absence from a list of 27 countries — mostly western European — that enjoy visa-free visits to the United States. According to reports, Kwasniewski had promised Poles to make visa waivers (search) a top agenda item when he met with Bush on Jan. 27, and cornered the U.S. leader on the subject during a White House press conference.

But despite his efforts, Kwasniewski failed to get more than a pledge from Bush that both countries would participate in a commission studying ways to make Polish travel to the United States less restrictive.

“Politically, it is a humiliating defeat for Kwasniewski, and raises some doubts as to Poland’s pro-American support, especially when Poland went out on a limb on Iraq,” read a statement by the Polish-American Congress (search) following the Polish president’s Washington visit.

Unlike citizens from the 27 countries on the visa-waiver list, which include the United Kingdom, France and Germany, Poles must obtain visitor visas through U.S consulate offices abroad before visiting the United States, and now, due to the new U.S. VISIT program (search), must be fingerprinted and photographed when they arrive here.

According to the U.S State Department, 60,847 visitor visas were granted to Poles in 2003, but sources say more than 30 percent of the total applications for such visas were refused, primarily because a U.S. consular officer determined the applicant would be a risk for overstaying their time in the States.

A country participating in the Visa Waiver Program (search) cannot have more than a 3 percent refusal rate, leading to strike one for the Poles, officials said. Strike two is the poor state of the Polish economy, creating conditions in which its citizens want to leave and work elsewhere.

“While Poland has dramatically improved over the last six to eight years, it is still below the standard of the rest of Europe and [it is] too enticing to stay in the U.S.,” said Glen Wasserstein, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Law Group (search). “When someone gets here, they are hard to track and hard to keep from working.”

According to the central Statistical Office in the Polish capital of Warsaw, the jobless rate at the end of 2003 in Poland was 20 percent, the same as the end of 2002. While private investment from the United States has been strong — nearly $8.2 billion last year — building a robust economy has been slow since Poland broke free from Soviet control in 1990.

Meanwhile, Poles have become active members in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (search), and are poised to enter the European Union (search) on May 1, along with several former Soviet republics. The Poles were one of the first of America’s allies to commit troops to Iraq — about 2,500, and are leading a multi-national force there of about 10,000 soldiers.

“Poland stuck its neck out and actually volunteered to help the United States in Iraq at the expense of the ire of the French president and the Germans, who are solidly against what [Bush] is doing in the war on terrorism,” said Casimir Lenard, a member of the Polish-American Congress, which represents about 3,000 Polish-American organizations nationwide.

“The Poles are scratching their heads and wondering, ‘What is going on?’” he said.

Representatives of the estimated 20 million Polish-Americans already living in the United States say Poles feel as though they are treated as “second-class citizens” despite their strong historic and familial ties. They say they feel they are being punished by the Cold War days when Polish refugees fled to the United States illegally.

“The latest requirement for the fingerprinting and photographing exacerbated the whole thing,” Lenard added.

“It has nothing to do with the Cold War or nothing to do with the fact that it was" behind the Iron Curtain or their current diplomatic ties, said Stuart Patt, spokesman for the State Department Consular Affairs Bureau (search). “It only has to do with whether they qualify for the program, and they don’t.”

High interest in coming to United States plays a role in keeping the tighter visa restrictions in place, Patt explained.  Those who did not receive one of the 37,000 permanent visas issued to Poles in 2003 might attempt to live here by overstaying a visitor visa, and that’s something the State Department is not going to risk.

Wasserstein said that even the EU is placing temporary labor restrictions on Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries joining the organization so that neighboring countries won’t be flooded with expectant workers after May 1.

He said the United States might want to watch what happens in that arena before relaxing its visa restrictions on countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, which are also prospective EU members and current members of NATO but do not enjoy visa-waiver status to the United States.

Lenard doesn’t buy it, calling it a “catch-22” for Poles who want just want to come here to visit family, but can’t prove it unless given the chance. He said they wait in huge lines and have to pay a $100 non-refundable fee just to apply for visas and then feel humiliated by the system.

Witold Zabinski, who works with the Atlanta-based Polish American Chamber of Commerce of the Southeast (search), said the U.S.-driven perception that Poles cannot be trusted to visit has hurt business investment in Poland.

“Poles have been faithful partners and players,” he said. “This creates a negative perception of Poland. It is very disappointing to us for Poles to be treated this way.”