Area Poles rally around bill to ease visa restrictions
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Last updated: Saturday May 21, 2011, 1:02 PM
BY MATTHEW MALYSA AND JOHN C. ENSSLIN
Local Polish-Americans are hoping that a bill pending in Congress will make it easier for their relatives to visit them from Poland.
The Secure Travel Counterterrorism Partnership Act of 2011, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, would make it possible to add Poland to a list of 36 countries whose residents can travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without requiring a visa.
To be eligible, a country is required to maintain high standards on counterterrorism, law enforcement, border patrol and document security standards.
Currently, the eligible list includes countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Ireland. However, Poland is not on the list because immigration officials currently reject visa applications by Poles at a rate of 9.8 percent; more than triple the maximum rate of 3 percent.
The proposed bill would replace that criterion with a requirement of a maximum 3 percent rate of visitors who overstay their visa. Poland would qualify under that rule, sponsors say.
“Poland is one of the best examples of a nation whose relationship with the United States has changed significantly for the better during the past half-century,” Pascrell said Friday. “It just makes sense that we should change the law governing visa waivers to reflect the world we live in today. People from the nations with which we have the best diplomatic relationships ought to have fewer impediments to visiting and doing business in the United States.”
Pascrell spokesman Paul Brubaker was unable to say what other countries besides Poland would become eligible under the proposed law.
Critics of the bill question whether the federal government does an adequate job of tracking visitors who overstay their visa limits.
“It doesn’t make sense to expand this program at least until we get a better handle on the exit portion,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for the elimination of the entire visa waiver program.
However, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has praised the measure as a “common sense investment” that would add a key U.S. ally such as Poland to the list.
Though the bill does not specifically target Poland, the bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, has referred to the bill as the delivery of the promise made by President Obama to include Poland in the visa waiver program.
The bill has support among New Jersey’s Polish-American community, who make up 6.9 percent of the state’s population.
Iwona Cicha, a teacher at the Polish supplementary school in Holy Rosary Church in Passaic, said that the people who suffer the most from the current system are the children of Polish immigrant families.
“On May 1st, our second-graders had their First Communion – many of our kids did not have their grandparents there because of this visa issue,” Cicha said.
For Upper Saddle River resident and lawyer Darius G. Michalski, the waiver of travel visas for Poles is a policy that is long overdue.
“Imagine all Polish people are on the no-fly list – that’s exactly how it is now,” said Michalski who explained that technically, when a Polish citizen applies for a tourist visa, he or she is really only applying for a “premise to enter.”
As Michalski explained, it is still up to the immigration officer in the U.S. who may or may not let them enter the country.
Michalski, who has worked with numerous Poles who have been detained by immigration officers through his non-profit organization, Forum Organized to Protect Poles (FOPP), said that the current system is no longer necessary and should have been changed quite some time ago.
“Enough is enough, after two decades of waiting, either grant us the same rights as other European nations or not,” said Michalski, who feels that the exclusion of Poland from the visa waiver program has resulted in bitterness in some parts of the Polish community.
Artur Sroka, president of the Polish American Cultural Center in Passaic, said when he travels to Poland to visit family, he often hears frustration from people who have been denied visas to the U.S.
“They don’t feel it’s right since Poland has been a big partner in fighting terrorism,” he said.
Walter Jeczen, owner of Polonia Plus Travel in Garfield, said that although he understands why Poland may have been denied the visa waiver in the past, he feels that Poland’s progress as a member of the European Union has eliminated the threat of masses of Poles overstaying their visas and staying in the U.S. illegally.
“Poland belongs to the European Union. Polish people do not need to come here looking for work when they could go to England and Germany with full work authorization,” said Jeczen. “The current visa system is treating the Polish people like they are still living under communism.”
Fellow travel agency owner Jerzy Majcherczyk of Classic Travel in Wallington said people have no reason to worry about an influx of illegal Polish immigrants should the bill pass. “The Poles that will benefit from this will be here in New Jersey as tourists – not as workers,” said Majcherczyk, who recalled his own sister being denied a visa for 33 years.
Area Polish population
The number of New Jersey residents who indicated their ancestry as Polish, according to the 2005-2009 census:
* New Jersey 573,491
* Bergen County 61,760
* Passaic County 25,427
* Morris County 35,758
* Wallington 5,808
* Garfield 5,569
* Fair Lawn 2,157
* Lyndhurst 1,768
* East Rutherford 1,338
* Clifton 8,244
* Wayne 4,229
* Passaic 2,381
* Wanaque 1,128
* Pompton Lakes 1,058
Source: U.S. Census Bureau