Rewarding Our Allies by Extending the Visa Waiver Program

During his remarks at the NATO summit meeting last week, President Bush announced his support for expanding the Visa Waiver program. This is a positive move for the President, and it mirrors the view I have long shared with many of my Congressional colleagues.

Currently, the Visa Waiver program allows people from 27 countries to visit America for travel or business purposes for up to 90 days without a visa. The Washington Post reports that this program attracts 15 million visitors to the United States each year, allowing our citizens the ability to visit with loved ones and generating up to $15 billion for our economy. But even more than these benefits, at a time when the United States is trying to build and repair relationships abroad, extending the Visa Waiver program offers the United States a very meaningful way to show our appreciation to our allies.

And no ally is more deserving of receiving Visa Waiver status than Poland. As a member of both the EU and NATO, and a firm ally in the United States’ war on terror, Poland has done more than enough to qualify for the reduced travel restrictions enjoyed by many of its European neighbors. The young democracy and growing economy of Poland, as well as the nearly 10 million people of Polish descent living in America, will greatly benefit from increased ties and reduced travel restrictions between our two countries.

The legislation that has been proposed in the 109th Congress to extend the Visa Waiver program is responsible and fair. For example, one of the main concerns in extending the Visa Waiver program is that travelers may illegally stay in the United States. The proposed legislation deals with this possibility by extending the Visa Waiver program on a trial basis only, allowing the United States time to gauge whether its travel laws are being complied with. Furthermore, while no terrorists have come from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, implementation of the Visa Waiver program would be contingent upon Poland demonstrating that it has implemented the security measures necessary to ensure its travelers are correctly identified and screened before leaving Poland.

I have been approached many times during my tenure in Congress by constituents seeking travel visas for their family members in Poland. These constituents simply want what many of us take for granted – the ability for all of their family to attend major family events such as weddings and baptisms. For this reason as well as those stated above, I am hopeful that the President’s words will lead to substantive action on the Visa Waiver issue in the next Congress. I look forward to joining other leaders in the House on this issue, such as Representatives Rahm Emmanuel and Sheila Jackson-Lee, in working with the Administration to ensure that our nation’s allies in Central and Eastern Europe don’t go unrecognized.

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