Poland is America's strongest ally in Central Europe. Russia's incursion into Ukraine, and its aggressive stance towards the region generally, makes America's alliance relationships in the region more important than ever. To strengthen it's relationship with Poland at this crucial time, America should include it in the Visa Waiver Program.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was created in 1986 to allow visa-free travel to the United States for up to 90 days. Right now, the VWP has 38 members, including most of US major European allies and many NATO member countries. Poland, a NATO member since 1999 and staunch U.S. ally and partner in U.S. defense initiatives in Europe, is not a VWP member. It should be.
Including Poland in the VWP will improve the security relationship between the U.S. and Poland while strengthening the economies of both countries. The U.S. Travel Association reports that in 2014, more than 20.3 million travelers (60 percent of all overseas visitors) arrived to the U.S. through the VWP, and generated $190 billion in economic output in the United States.
Several bipartisan efforts to add Poland to the VWP membership have been introduced in the past several Congressional sessions. This year, Reps. Joe Heck, R-Nev., and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., introduced the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act. The bill garnered 87 co-sponsors from both parties, showing the wide base of bipartisan support for VWP reform in Congress. Heck and Quigley argued that the JOLT Act would "bring more international travelers and tourists to destinations around our country and create(s) jobs" and "(strengthen) our relationships with important allies like Poland."
Heck and Quigley are correct to argue that Poland's inclusion in VWP would have both strategic and economic benefits. In addition to its strong alliance with the U.S., Poland has a robust economy. Poland's GDP continued to grow through the financial crisis of 2008. In 2009, at the high point of the crisis, the GDP of the European Union as a whole dropped by 4.5 percent, while Polish GDP increased by 1.6 percent. Poland's growth makes the argument that Polish citizens would use VWP to immigrate to the US for economic reasons harder to believe.
Much of the opposition to Poland's inclusion in VWP has less to do with Poland itself, and more to do with the state of immigration politics in the U.S. Both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have voiced fears that the VWP as currently constituted makes travel too easy for terrorists. They want to limited the program rather than expand it. Security concerns are certainly justified, but VWP reform bills address them. Countries participating in the VWP share data on travelers in an electronic database that provides immigration and intelligence services with far more useful information than is gleaned from the standard interviews conducted by the State Department when it issues visas. Since the introduction of the JOLT act, Sens. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., and Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., introduced their own bill (S. 1507) that would empower the Homeland Security Department to determine criteria for VWP obtaining and retaining their status in the program, ensuring that the department can consistently monitor member countries and take enforcement actions when necessary.
This is an important moment in the U.S.-Poland relationship. As a former Ambassador and arms control negotiator, I briefed the leaders of Poland and other Central European countries on President Reagan's arms control strategy. I understand the importance Poland places on its relationship with America. Poland has demonstrated this commitment through its contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Poland is leaning harder on the NATO alliance, including purchasing U.S.-made missile defense systems. The U.S. should do all it can to enhance its relationship with its strongest ally in Central Europe. Including Poland in the VWP would benefit both countries economically in the near term, and would enhance their alliance over the long term. It should happen now.
Edward L. Rowny is a former ambassador and Lt. Gen. USA (Ret.), and president of the American Polish Advisory Council.
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