Speaking today at the Wroclaw Global Forum, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides declared that “the Obama Administration strongly supports expanding the Visa Waiver Program to include Poland” and that “legislation that could open the door to Poland’s participation in the program is possible by the end of this year.”
Nides noted that this was one of those “few times” in Washington where something has “bipartisan support” and that there was “a desire among Democrats and Republicans to get this done.” Indeed, there is already a bill in the Senate–the so-called Jobs Originated through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act–to do it with one soon to be introduced in the House. Further, while other countries are also being considered for addition to the program, Nides admitted that this was being done for “the sole purpose” of getting Poland into to the fold.
It’s seemingly a no-brainer. The Visa Waiver Program, established in 1986, allows citizens of named countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Poland is the only country in the Eurozone that does not already qualify.
Poland is a NATO ally which has disproportionately contributed to the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, citizens of places ranging from Andorra and Malta to San Marino and Brunei don’t need waivers.
It’s not a partisan issue. President Bush called for adding Poland in 2006. The conservative Hudson Institute was calling for adding Poland as far back as 2007 and the Heritage Foundation ran a blog back in January urging a change.
So, what’s the holdup? The law requires, among many other things, that countries on the waiver list have a visa refusal rate of no more than 3 percent; Poland’s rate was 9.8 percent in 2010. The reasons for this anomaly are unclear but supporters of Poland note that their visa overstay rate is quite low, at less than two percent, and the JOLT legislation would use that metric instead.
While this substitute gets the job done, it seems to me that a simpler method would be to simply grant an automatic waiver to members of NATO and the EU. The purpose of the program, after all, is to “eliminate unnecessary barriers to travel, stimulating the tourism industry, and permitting the Department of State to focus consular resources in other areas.” Surely, there’s no reason to spend those resources on scrutinizing the applications of citizens from our closest allies and trading partners.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.