May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall

The Iron Curtain fell over 20 years ago, but there’s still an artificial barrier between Poland and the U.S. Unfortunately, it is a wall of our own making.

Warsaw has warmly embraced the Western world since being freed from the Soviet orbit in 1989. In 1999 Poland, along with the Czech Republic and Hungary, joined NATO.

She has proved a loyal ally since then. Polish troops fought alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and continue to do so in Afghanistan.

Ties between our two countries run deep. Revolutionary War hero General Thaddeus Kosciuszko emigrated from Poland. President Obama’s home state of Illinois proudly proclaims the first Monday of every March a holiday in honor of Casimir Pulaski, another Revolutionary War hero from Poland.

Despite these ties, current and historic, U.S. policy treats the people of Poland worse than it treats citizens of other NATO allies when they seek to visit our country. Inexplicably, we continue to deny Poland participation in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Introduced in 1986, the VWP initially allowed citizens of Cold War allies such as Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without having to apply for a visa, go through mandatory interviews or pay substantial visa application fees. Citizens of countries to the east of the Iron Curtain were, understandably, ineligible to travel via the VWP.

But the fall of the Iron Curtain heralded a new day. Many formerly communist countries are now good friends and trusted allies. Recognizing this new reality, President Bush in 2008 brought six former captive nations into the VWP: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia.

Today, 36 countries participate in the VWP. But not Poland. Polish citizens are still being treated like Cold War suspects.

Poles wishing to vacation in America must arrange an appointment, go to a U.S. embassy or consulate, pay a non-refundable fee and undergo an interview by a State Department functionary. That’s not how the Poles treat Americans wishing to visit their country. And it’s certainly no way to treat a friend.

There is, however, a proven way to correct this disparity and strengthen the U.S.-Poland partnership. Just follow the path used to bring the six former captive nations into the VWP. Created by the Department of Homeland Security, it’s called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

A sophisticated, automated system, ESTA uses data provided by VWP countries to identify serious criminals and potential terrorists among visa applicants. Essentially, it serves as a powerful magnet to pull potentially harmful metal needles out of a haystack.

To gain admission to the VWP, countries are required to share intelligence and law enforcement data with us through ESTA. This makes us safer, because it helps us identify and keep dangerous individuals out of the U.S. far better than the standard visa-granting process.

It’s also far more efficient. Treating as a suspect every Pole who wants to visit the U.S. is like picking up and examining each piece of straw in a haystack to make sure it’s not a needle. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars, and the State Department officials could be better deployed to countries where the threat of terrorism is far greater.

Making the U.S. a more welcoming destination for Polish tourists also makes good economic sense. Overseas tourists generally spend a lot of money — on average, about $4,000 per person — while visiting our shores.

President Obama will be in Poland on Friday and Saturday. His trip offers a tremendous opportunity to Poles and Americans alike. He has already spoken with Polish President Komorowski about the VWP issue during an Oval Office meeting last December. More general discussion is unnecessary. Instead, President Obama should use his visit to Warsaw to announce his desire — and a clear plan of action — to get Poland into the Visa Waver Program.

James Dean is the Deputy Director of Government Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Dean Manager, International and Diplomatic Programs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Legal Issues

First appeared in The Daily Caller