US Senate agrees visa free travel for Polish tourists

The US Senate has passed an amendment to a bill on immigration reform which paves the way for Polish tourists to travel to the States without visas for a trial period of two years. This is apparently in reward for Poland's role in supporting the US in the Iraq war and in the NATO stabilization force there. But it is up to the House of Representatives to have the final say on the bill. Michal Kubicki has the details:

The visa issue has long been a point of contention in Polish-American relations, with Poles having to apply for visas before travelling to America and having to pay for an application, even if they are eventually refused a visa. A fresh initiative to resolve the problem has come from the US Senate, which has proposed that the visa waiver programme should cover the countries which are members of the European Union, have sent contingents of at least 300 troops to support the Americans in Iraq, and do not pose a potential terrorist risk.

Even though the amendment does not mention Poland by name, it is clear that Poland is the only country to fulfil the three criteria. If made into law, the new legislation would allow Polish tourists and those travelling on business to stay in the States for up to 60 days without a visa. The scheme is to be introduced for an initial period of two years.

The Polish ambassador in Washington Janusz Reiter says the Senate decision is not yet a cause for celebration but for satisfaction and optimism:

"The Senate amendment has created good prospects for the House of Representatives debate. The House will now have to take a stand on a key document and not just respond to requests from Polish diplomatic circles. This is an entirely new situation, in both a political and psychological sense."

Robert Strybel, the Warsaw-based correspondent for several Polish publications in the United States, welcomes the decision of the US Senate

"This is a major step forward; so far we've had pressure, petitions, letter-writing campaigns.... However, this is an initial step, because the House of Representatives will have to deal with the law and usually the bill does not end up the way it entered the House, so some aspects of it can be modified."

The amendment was sponsored by a group of senators which included Barbara Mikulski, who a decade ago was among the staunchest supporters of Poland's entry to NATO

"Barbara Mikulski from the State of Maryland pointed out that Poland is not just another communist hold-over or a Third World nation begging for a handout but a member of NATO and the European Union, as well as a major US ally in Iraq."

What at the moment prevents Poland from qualifying for the visa waiver programme is a very high rejection rate for visa applications, caused by numerous cases of people who take up illegal jobs in the States. According to Robert Strybel, the ball in now in the Polish court:

"There is still this concept of breaking visa requirements, of posing as tourists and going to work, so the ball is now in the Polish court. If there is a two-year probationary period, it'll be up to the Poles to prove that they are within the law."

Former Polish president Lech Walesa has welcomed the decision of the US Senate. It is not known at the moment when the immigration policy will be debated by the House of Representatives.