PI Original Ashlee Rezin Tuesday February 5th, 2013, 8:24pm

Illinois Congressmen Work Together In Bipartisan Effort To Update Visa Program

Illinois lawmakers reintroduced the Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act yesterday, legislation that would waive visas for visitors to the U.S. from countries. We take a look at what updating the law would do for residents in countries like Poland.

Illinois lawmakers reintroduced the Visa Waiver Program Enhanced Security and Reform Act, legislation that would waive visas for visitors to the U.S. from countries like Poland.

Estab­lished in 1986 to promote better relations with U.S. allies, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows foreign citizens of participating countries to travel without a visa in the U.S. for up to 90 days. There are 37 countries eligible for visa-free travel in America, and although it is a key U.S. ally, Poland is not one of them.

U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley (D,IL-5) and Aaron Schock (R, IL-18) and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) sponsored companion legislation in the House of Representatives and Senate on Monday to update eligibility criteria for applicant countries. Current law uses the visa refusal rate as one of the factors for acceptance in the program, and that number has held Poland outside of designation. 

Poland remains the only Central European country that is not a participating nation in the Visa Waiver Program.

“Modernizing the Visa Waiver Program will strengthen our national security, provide valuable tourism revenue, and enhance relationships with important allies like Poland, who have been frozen out of the VWP due to its outdated structure,” U.S. Rep. Quigley said in a statement.  “I hope this bill will move quickly through Congress and to the President’s desk, opening the doors for Poland once and for all.”

Similar legislation was introduced last year and formally endorsed by President Obama, but it died in the House Judiciary Committee.

“Poland is a strong ally of the United States and plays a critical role in NATO military operations in Europe and the Middle East, including on the battlefield in Afghanistan,” said Sen. Kirk in a statement. “Now is the time to stand behind our Polish allies and allow their citizens visa-free travel to the U.S., a privilege that nearly all of our other close democratic allies have enjoyed for years."

According to the United States Travel Association, in 2010, more than 17 million visitors to America were from Visa Waiver Program countries, comprising 65 percent of all visitors. While visiting, they spent nearly $61 billion, supporting 433,000 American jobs and generating $9 billion in tax revenues.

“This is something that is long overdue,” said Gary Kenzer, executive director of the Polish American Association in Chicago, and a Polish-American whose father was born in Poland.

As of the 2000 Census report, an estimated 950,000 people claimed Polish ancestry in Chicago, making up approximately 7 percent of the population. The city houses more than 150,000 Polish language speakers.

“Here’s a country that has stood shoulder to shoulder with America for a very long time and the fact that they’re not included in the VWP — well the time has definitely come,” said Kenzer. The Polish American Association is a non-profit social service agency catered toward Chicago’s Polish population, and Kenzer said he’s seen a lot of people struggle because of Poland’s exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program.

“I’ve seen people actually return back to Poland because they feel like they’re locked into this country and their relatives are locked out,” he said. Of the 165 full- and part-time staff members of the Polish American Association, Kenzer said at least 160 were born in Poland.

“I can’t understand why Poland’s not included — it’s all politics.”

To be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, a designation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in consultation with the State Department, a country must meet various security and other requirements, such as enhanced law enforcement and security-related data sharing with the United States. Visa Waiver Program members are also required to maintain high counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, and document security standards.

In addition, according to the State Department website, designation as a Visa Waiver Program country is at the discretion of the United States government, and meeting the requirements does not guarantee a successful candidacy for Visa Waiver Program membership.

“In Illinois, our state has greatly benefited from the contributions of the local Polish community,” said U.S. Rep. Schock in a statement. “The Polish community has achieved high levels of home ownership, education and income, all characteristics we should continue to embrace and build upon by including Poland as part of the Visa Waiver Program.”

Along with Poland, other countries nominated for the Visa Waiver Program include Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Israel, Romania, Turkey and Uruguay. There is no established timeline for how long a country may remain on the nominated list before either being approved or rejected from the program.

“Opening up the process and giving Polish citizens a path to visa-free travel brings more tourism revenue to the United States and gives Poland the same privileges our other allies already receive,” said U.S. Rep Bill Foster (D-11) in a statement.

Along with congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D, IL-4), Adam Kinzinger (R, IL-11), Dan Lipinski (D, IL-3), Jan Schakowsky (D, IL-9), Brad Schneider (D, IL-10) and John Shimkus (R, IL-15), Foster cosponsored the House bill to update the eligibility criteria for the Visa Waiver Program.

“This is just the kind of commonsense, bipartisan legislation we need,” Foster added.

Image: Rex Features via AP Images

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