Poles Upset at US Visa Regime

For many people around the world, mainly either those actively wanting to or at least thinking about traveling to the United States, the big event marking this past first-business-week of the New Year was the introduction last Monday at America’s seaports and airports of mandatory procedures involving the photographing and fingerprinting of most foreign entrants. In one sense, this was just the sequel to the “air marshal” flap happening just before, as yet one more unilateral demand placed by the Bush administration on travel to the US, placed out there for other involved countries to “take it or leave it,” although resistance to this so far has been less than to the demand for air marshalls.

However, see this NYT article for the great Brazilian exception, where authorities – spurred by a judge’s ruling – have in turn instituted the requirement that all Americans entering Brazil be photographed and fingerprinted. And that’s all Americans – the article makes mention that even American diplomats, plus visiting US Senator Pat Roberts, were required to deliver up mugshots and prints – and a better solution is hard to imagine for the obvious problem here that the high-and-mighty setting such US policy normally get to remain blissfully unaware of the impact their decisions have on the everyday lives of ordinarily mortals. There just remains the task of getting George W. Bush to pose in an airport somewhere, which would have the collateral benefit of greatly assisting those many hundreds of thousands of anti-US-policy protesters in Western Europe whose own attempts at fashioning a Bush mugshot on the posters and placards they march with in the streets have too often been hopelessly amateurish.

Another reason resistance is less to the new mugshot-and-prints regime is that citizens from a core of 27 countries (mostly Western European) seen as low-risk and/or particularly friendly to US policy (plus Canada) are exempt. Unfortunately, it’s questionable whether the friendliness of the country and the degree of terrorist risk posed by its citizens are very much correlated; you can grasp this by recalling that that gentleman (now locked up in perpetuity) who two years ago tried to blow up a US-bound flight with explosives hidden in his tennis-shoes was a French national, as well as by reading this excellent opinion-piece on the whole issue in today’s Washington Post’s “Outlook” section. (Then there are those of you asking aloud now “What, France? A ‘friendly country’?” Sillies, for all the Franco-American policy differences of recent years, clearly from geopolitical and immigration perspectives France belongs in that camp of 27.)

But back to the new requirements for folks from what you could call the “great unwashed” parts of the world who would like to visit America, and in particular Poland. Yep, the Poles also belong to those “great unwashed,” notwithstanding things like the prompt and firm support the Polish government provided the Bush administration when it came to Iraq. The Poles are not happy with the new requirements, naturally. Surprisingly, though, a review of Polish press coverage of the matter has convinced me that this development itself barely rates “man-bites-dog” newsworthy status. Rather, the new requirements are merely the latest riff on what Poles perceive to be an ongoing insult – namely that they are required to obtain visas to visit the US at all. What’s more, George W. Bush’s announcement of this past week of proposed changes to US immigration law to grant amnesty in certain cases to illegals in the US turned out 1) To be directly relevant to the mugshot-and-photo issue, and 2) To be of much more interest to Poles. Intrigued? Just click on “More…”

Once again, on this issue Gazeta Wyborcza wins the prize for the extensiveness of its coverage; it builds a handy collection of links to its various articles on a page entitled Should We Introduce Visas for the USA?

But Americans who had been thinking about, say, savoring the Old World charm of Kraków’s Stary Rynek (“Old Market,” or the big market-square in the center of the old town) in the spring shouldn’t be alarmed. The brief article there quotes officials from the Polish Foreign Ministry as saying “No, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot; most travelers from the US to Poland are nasze Polonia,” meaning that they are those of Polish heritage visiting the “old country.”

(By the way, I don’t certainly don’t mean to be ironic with that Stary Rynek recommendation! Go check it out! But also don’t forget Wroclaw as another destination: Just as historic (or, in 20th-century terms, even more so), less tourist-overrun, and therefore cheaper, too. Also features a very nice central square for strolling and sitting at ice-cream cafés, by the way.)

A good place to start serious discussion of Polish coverage is with Gazeta’s article entitled Even the Union Won’t Help Us, meaning here “European Union,” of course. This article basically presents the laundry-list of Polish complaints about the whole US visa-regime: In addition to the new mugshot-and-prints rule, from last August each Pole aspiring to travel to the US has had to have an interview with an American consular officer; as of 2002 the whole process has cost $100, and that’s whether you’re ultimately granted the visa or not; as a result, the American federal budget profits mightily from Poles, to the tune of $15-16 million yearly, while of course Americans wishing to travel to Poland need no visas and so contribute no such fees; and, even if you do pay your $100 and get your visa, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be admitted into the country when the time arrives – the article cites several cases of Poles arriving at US airports, only to be put in handcuffs and promptly deported, because US immigration officials saw something wrong about them. (Some of you would say, “Quite right: Just because they managed to hide their terrorist connections from the consular officials doesn’t mean the airport personnel aren’t allowed to discover and pack them away.” But from our further discussion you’ll see that such handcuff-treatment need not have anything to do with being involved with “terrorists.”)


With all of this, of course, I’m saving the issue identified in the article’s title for last. It seems that even Poland’s imminent membership of the European Union does not necessarily mean that Poland leaves the “great unwashed” simply by joining a multi-national confederation, most of whose members are among those exempt 27. Note the “most”: Greece is an EU member, but Greeks (or, if you prefer as G.W. Bush, “Grecians”) need visas to go to the US. That’s because, as the article notes, US law permits waiving visa requirements only to citizens of those states for which the US embassy and consulates there reject 3% or less of visa applicants. A full one-third of Polish applicants are rejected, says the article and, with the general tightening-up of the visa regime that mugshots-and-prints represents, that 33% can only be expected to go up, not down.

So many Poles are working for al-Qaeda, you might ask? Not in the least; Poles overwhelmingly have their visa applications rejected because they either have a history of extending a stay in the US illegally and/or working there without authorization, or because some consular officer simply thinks that they will. And this brings the issue of such illegal immigration into the picture – an issue that you think would have no place in discussions of terrorism and security (the supposed reasons why all this tightening-up at US airports is happening in the first place, you would think, why nice little old Paraguayan grandmothers are posing for mugshots), but which actually does.

This much we hear straight from US embassy officials in Warsaw, in the Rzeczpospolita article To the States without a Visa?. The quote from an unnamed official at that embassy: “According to mandatory regulations, it is possible to waive the visa-requirement when the number of persons illegally extending their stays in the USA as well as those who are refused a visa when presenting their documents does not exceed 3%. In Poland’s case both are even ten-times greater. Currently there therefore is no formal basis upon which to take that step.” That quote comes at the tail end of an article whose main point is that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski is dissatisfied with the situation, and promises to put the issue on the agenda when he travels to Washington late this month to meet with President Bush. Kwasniewski himself is quoted as saying “I see no reason my the countries in the Union [i.e. presently] can have liberalized rules and we as a new country of the Union cannot.” (By the way, that summary-article I already cited from Gazeta, Should We Introduce Visas for the USA?, notes that Kwasniewski called Bush about this last Tuesday – i.e. the day after the new mugshot-and-prints regulations took effect. You want to tell me that that was a pre-planned telephone discussion? No way; rather, the wailing from his citizens was reaching the Polish president’s office already on the second day, prompting him to reach for the telephone.)


Which brings us to the comments reported in Gazeta Wyborcza from Marek Siwiec, head of the Polish Office of National Security, who in that capacity works under Kwasniewski and will be accompanying him to those Washington talks (Siwiec: At a Certain Moment We Will Have to React). Siwiec takes a somewhat harder line on the issue than does his president; by “we will have to react” he intends precisely to raise the prospect that Poland will impose a visa requirement on Americans in the future, if there doesn’t come to be some “imagination” applied to the whole issue and everything continues to proceed using “bureaucratic methods” instead. Siwiec also hits the following nail right on the head: “The Americans should answer the question whether ‘black work’ [i.e. illegal work in the US] which Poles accept is a threat to their national security, since that is the main reason that leads Poles to be subject to all these inconveniences.” And he places this in the context of the proposals President Bush presented last Wednesday to grant limited amnesties to illegal workers in the US; the proposals might have been aimed at illegal Mexican workers (or, more precisely, at the Latino vote for president), but hey, an illegal worker is an illegal worker; if the one is considered so useful to the American economy (rather than being some sort of terroristic threat to American security), then why can’t the other? Finally, Siwiec takes advantage of his status of not representing Poland diplomatically, not being so high as to actually represent the Polish state internationally, to make some rather frank and bitter observations about the “very difficult decisions” Poland had to make about a year ago about whether to support US policy toward Iraq, and about whether to send Polish troops there; “our evaluations [of the worth of such actions] are not always the same as that of the Americans,” he remarks, “and that also has to do with Iraq’s economic future.”


As if this weren’t enough, there are also a few further commentary pieces in Gazeta Wyborcza. A small one by Darius Rosati, Polish foreign minister in the early 1990s, helps explain why Poles feel so hard done-by: When Poland abolished the visa-requirement for Americans after the break from Communism (which occurred on 15 May 1991, although I got that exact date from yet another article), the Americans promised that the Polish visa-requirement for travel to America would be abolished “when Poland became a democratic country.” It’s been pretty democratic for some time now; and instead we’ve had the visa-fee set at $20 in 1994, and then $100 in 2002. (And see below for how much fun it is for Poles to visit the Warsaw embassy to get that visa.) Then we have the rather clever commentary from Piotr Stasinski: Pulaski Would Not Have Gotten a Visa. To those in need of some background, Casimir Pulaski (together with other figures such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko) was a Polish officer who came to America during the Revolution to join the Continental Army to fight for independence for the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain. These days, Stasinski writes, Pulaski would be turned away at the embassy by the consular officer, on suspicion of wanting to go to America to engage in “black” military work.


Finally, there is the humorous tale by Lukasz Lipinski (Sojusznik na mrozie – dzien z zycia kolejkowicza, which I translate as “Ally Out in the Cold – A Day of Waiting-in-Line Existence”) of his attempts to go to the US embassy to be interviewed and get his own visa for the US. His appointment for the interview was at 13.00 hours, and he duly arrived fifteen minutes early. But his assumption that that 13.00 time had anything remotely to do with reality would turn out to be only his first naive misconception about dealing with the embassy’s consular bureaucracy. Sorry, I won’t go into too much detail here, even though it’s a shame that this is only in Polish since (just as with my remarks above about the US Senator contributing a mugshot to the Brazilian authorities) this account would work wonders in enlightening those responsible for this policy about what they are really putting people through with it. How about this: Lipinski was sharp enough to note ahead of time on the Internet that mobile telephones are not allowed in the embassy (not that all vital information on that website was kept up-to-date), so he didn’t bring his, but of course many others weren’t so enlightened. Where to put their mobiles during their visit? Obviously not in the embassy itself – they’re not allowed there. They found out that the travel agent across the street was doing a booming business in mobile telephone baby-sitting – for a fee, of course. “Long live the American spirit of entrepreneurialism!” Lipinski exults. That “Ally Out in the Cold” part of his title, by the way, refers to the fact that by far the longest portion of his visit was spent in a line that extended way out-of-doors into the winter’s cold; “next time I’ll be sure to take care of my visa when it’s summer,” he thinks to himself. But he’s still thankful for small pleasures: for example, in the section on the visa form that reads “name of clan or tribe” they allow you to answer with “does not apply.”

Accompanying Lipinski’s account is another article, Ambasada USA sie tlumaczy. Let’s see: tlumaczyc sie means “to explain oneself”; could this be “US Ambassador Explains Himself”? No such luck: The ambassador is busy with other things more in line with Bush administration policy (meaning he’s smoothing the way in Poland for wealthy Republican businessmen). Ambasada actually means “embassy,” and it’s embassy press-spokesman Dick Custin whom we have here responding to a few questions posed by reporter Wojciech Szacki. Like “Why do people waiting to apply for visas have to stand outside in the cold for so long?” “Local conditions don’t allow everybody being allowed inside. We’re working on doubling the size of the waiting-room.” “Why do we have to pay $100 for a visa. And why do we have to pay 4,44 zloties per minute just to call the embassy?” “The amount of the charges has to do with the increase in costs and inconvenience after the tragedies of September 11. It’s the same everywhere in the world. . . . The telephone charges only cover the costs of the telephone service – the American government does not profit from them.”

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