President Obama announced Saturday that he supports rule changes to the U.S. visa waiver system that could help pave the way for central European ally Poland gain entry into the program.
In a letter released during Obama’s visit to Warsaw, Obama informed members of Congress sponsoring legislation to restructure the Visa Waiver Program that he supported their efforts. Passport holders from the 36 countries presently in the program are allowed to visit the United States and stay for 90 days without getting a visa.
“I write to express my strong support for the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011,” Obama wrote. “I also share your support for Poland and disappointment that this close NATO ally has been excluded from the VWP to date."
Poland’s exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program has been a point of tension in the U.S.-Polish relationship, and Obama had pledged the resolve the problem when Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski visited the White House in December.
Obama put his support behind legislation in the House and Senate—and sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.— that calls for countries being considered for entry into the VWP to be considered based on their citizens’ overstay rate instead of the current standard of visa applicant refusal rate.
Poland’s visa refusal rate was at 9.8 percent in 2010—well above three percent threshold to be considered for entry into the program under current. But the country’s overstay rate was around 2 percent last year, according to lawmakers.
“The overstay rate charts reality instead of someone’s guess on how people will act,” said Quigley, who represents the heavily Polish district, in an interview with National Journal ahead of Obama’s Poland trip. “It’s the more effective way to do this.”
Congressional advocates for revamping the visa say excluding a nation that has been a close ally on national security issues is unfair. They also cite Poland’s steadfast alliance with the United States. Poland stood with America in Iraq and has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan—proportionately equivalent to a U.S. force of 20,000.
The Polish government is also assisting the new government in Tunisia as the North African nation attempts to implement democratic reforms. Earlier this month, Poland sent its foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, to the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi to advise opposition leaders on running the government after Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s presumptive ouster.