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Sweet column: Senate takes step towards visa waivers for Polish citizens to visit U.S. But long road ahead before it becomes law.

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The Senate approved a measure to make it easier for Polish citizens to visit the United States without visas, in recognition of Poland's role as an ally in sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.


But the provision, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and passed unanimously on a voice vote Wednesday, faces many hurdles before it becomes law because it is part of the immigration bill being debated in Congress.

However, the Senate's adoption of visa waiver legislation for Poland, propelled by Frist's embrace of the cause, provides momentum that may allow it to surface in other measures even if Congress never sends the contentious immigration overhaul legislation to President Bush's desk.

"Allowing our allies in the war on terror to participate in the visa waiver program is a simple way to express appreciation for their contributions and foster continued goodwill,'' Frist said in a statement.

The lack of a visa waiver program for Poland, a staunch U.S. ally, has been a source of friction between the countries. Frist visited Warsaw last month and discussed the matter with Poland's new president, Lech Kaczynski.

"The people of Poland don't understand, and frankly neither do I, why France is among the 27 countries of the visa waiver program, but Poland is not,'' Mikulski said during floor debate Wednesday.

That's a reference to France's refusal to back the United States on the Iraqi war and an allusion to other European Union countries with visa waivers who did not send soldiers to Iraq.

Poland has about 1,000 soldiers in Iraq and another 1,000 in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission. The new Polish government, however, may pull troops out of Iraq.

At present, the citizens of 27 nations are allowed to visit the United States without waivers, and pressure has been building for some time to add Poland to the list. It's a matter of vast importance to the Chicago area's large Polish and Polish-American community.

Last year, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) were among the co-sponsors of a bill granting visa waivers for Polish citizens, but it stalled in part because the proposal never won the backing of the State Department.

The Senate-approved visa waiver plan for Poland has the support of the State and Justice departments. The amendment would allow Poland to be part of the visa waiver program for two years on a probationary basis, which would allow its citizens to visit the United States for 60 days without needing a visa.

Lipinski said he was encouraged about the ultimate prospects of the Polish waiver proposal now that it has the backing of Frist, and pessimistic about the prospects of the House and Senate agreeing on a bill to send to Bush to sign.

"Poland certainly has been a great ally of the United States," Lipinski said.

Said Mikulski, "The United States is blessed with few allies as stalwart as Poland, but we tell a grandmother in Gdansk she needs a visa to visit her grandchildren in America.''

4 Comments

I'm very dissapointed that only Poland is considered to be part of visa waiver program and Slovakia who is one of the US allies in Iraq and Afganistan wasn't included and recognized.
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Lynn Sweet reply...in the proposal, other countries could be part of the visa program....IF they meet certain benchmarks set by the U.S. .....the legislation was written narrowly so only Poland at this point in time fits the specs......but if the specs change (such as the number of troops in Iraq or Afghanistan)...then other countries could fit the plan. All this is subject to many negotiations in Congress.

I am writing from Barcelona. I am an American, but my friend is from Poland. We planned a trip together to California. But he was denied a tourist visa even though he is a permanent resident of the UK where he is a supervisor. It has been the most frustrating (and expensive)experience for both of us. We paid $500 in airline change fees! It has certainly reflected poorly on America. I was in London and went with him to the embassy. He went in at 10:10 for a 10:30 appointment. He finally had his interview at 3:30, 5 hours later. I thought it would be about 2 hours so I waited in the park next to the embassy. In the end he had about 2 minutes of an interview and was denied the visa. I strongly believe that the visa program as it is clearly is a farce. I hope Poland and other EU countries are admitted to the VWP soon.

iam permanent resident in australia but still holding polish citizenship last year i wanted to visit usa for 2 weeks on my way to europe ,,,i went for an interview ,,,, and was declined i had everyhting on me proof of founds and payed acom,, the interw toke 5 minuts he said to me ,,,,, look in my eyes and tell me why you are going to usa ??,,,,, it was feelt like iam criminal or he think i want to stay in usa i dont know thats they problem iam living in australia working paying taxes and not very nice experience

One of my best friends is a polish girl who has worked for me during her schooling for her diploma. I want her to accompany me a trip to the states for just 2 weeks...she knows of others who have tried for a visa after spending a frustrating amount of time and money only to be refused.It would be a great step forward having the VWP, not everyone is looking to stay in the states permanently..just to visit the country would be a wonderful experience for her.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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