Polish Community Shocked by Treatment of Polish Citizens at U.S. Border

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Polish Daily News and FI2W reporter

This year ends with an unpleasant intervention by Poland’s diplomatic staff at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. At issue are recent cases of Poles who were denied entry to the U.S. at the New York area airports.

While no one questions the right of the U.S to bar certain individuals from entering the country, the treatment of Polish citizens was shocking to many, especially since most of those stopped at the border were older women in their 60s and 70s. Many of them were coming to visit their families and friends for Christmas, but instead ended up being interrogated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and transported in handcuffs to a detention center.

“In my case, they told me I overstayed my visa (when I) worked here between 1989 and 1991,” said Mrs. Janina, 64, who asked not to reveal her last name. “I admitted it was true. But since then I was here again in 2004 after I obtained my new visa, and everything was fine. Why they are giving me troubles now because of something I did almost 20 years ago, I really don’t know?” Mrs Janina was one of 13 Poles, including 11 women, who were not admitted to the U.S. in the month of November at the Newark Liberty International Airport. Some Polish citizens were also stopped at JFK airport. Similar cases occurred in December.

While most of the time the reason for inadmissibility was an old immigration violation, there was also a 60-years old woman, Mrs. Anna, who said she had never overstayed her visa, but still was not admitted. Allegedly, she was told that her visits to the U.S. were too frequent. Her explanation that her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren are U.S. citizens did not help.

CBP spokespeople are prohibited from discussing specific cases. They list, however, more than 60 grounds of inadmissibility divided into several major categories, including security reasons, illegal entrants and immigration violations, as well as documentation requirements.
Representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw stress that visas obtained in Poland do not guarantee that the visa-holder will be admitted to the U.S. The decision is up to CBP officers upon arrival to America.

After the interrogation Poles were ordered to return to their home country on the next available departure flight.

However, while waiting, their custody was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who transported them to a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. During the ride officers put chains around their waists that were also connected with handcuffs. They also had chains put around their ankles. At the detention center they had to undress, and were given jail underwear as well as red uniforms, and were placed in cells. In some cases there were no beds and no blankets, only concrete benches and a toilet bowl. Some women claimed that they had no access to their medication, even though they suffered from various diseases. Mrs. Janina, who has heart disease and high blood pressure, maintains that she was one of them.

According to a note sent to the Polish Daily News after a meeting between representatives of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the U.S. consul general in Warsaw, Mr. Philip Min, these two issues – handcuffing and chaining of the elderly and lack of access to their medication – were the two main complaints that became the subject of the diplomatic conversation.

Women who complained to the Polish diplomatic services described their experience as traumatizing. “Before we left Elizabeth, they chained me again and then took me to the airport where other Poles waiting for the plane could see me. I felt as if I was the worst criminal. Prior to that I saw handcuffs and prison cells only in the movies,” said Mrs. Janina. She claims that after returning to Poland she ended up in the hospital, completely dehydrated and vomiting for hours.

Consul Wojciech Lukasiewicz of the Legal Affairs and Consular Protection Unit at the Polish consulate in New York claims that in the past he had seen cases of handcuffing Poles that were not admitted to the U.S.. “But I’ve never heard about so many cases in such a short period of time and I’ve never seen elderly women being handcuffed,” he said.

In a phone conversation with the Polish Daily News, ICE spokesperson Michael Gilhooly explained that “people are restrained when they are transported for security reasons; for the safety of the public, for the safety of officers and for the safety of other detainees.”

He also assured that all individuals coming from the airport to the detention facility get a medical screening. “They see a health care professional from the Immigration Health Services, and the medical personnel is on hand in that facility 24 hours a day.” The complete change of clothing, including undergarments, Gilhooly described as detention standards.

But the question many Poles are still trying to answer is ‘why now?‘ Has anything specific provoked this kind of reaction or is it just American immigration policy getting stricter? It’s highly improbable that this kind of treatment has a specifically anti-Polish character, since according to Polish diplomats in New York they’ve been receiving similar signals from other consulates. Regardless of the reason, Poles who consider themselves close allies of the United States, feel disappointed.

In recent years Poland proved to be one of the most pro-American countries in Europe. It has supported the wars in Iraq (Polish troops left Iraq in October 2008) and Afghanistan. In August 2008 Poland signed an agreement to install part of the U.S. missile defense system in its territory. It has been a NATO member since 1999.

As summarized in the note sent by the Polish Foreign Affairs Ministry, “Because of particularly close relationship between our countries and traditionally extremely positive attitude of Poles towards the U.S., these cases are highly sensitive for the image of the U.S. in Poland.”
This strict enforcement applied to Polish citizens is even more surprising, considering that with the economic situation in Poland greatly improved, the number of Poles immigrating permanently to the U.S. keeps decreasing. On the other hand, more are coming to travel, to shop, or for business, which could only help the American economy.


  1. NPS

    CBP and ICE are pathetic. To protect security they have to cuff and shackle people?? This is horrendous. Our idiotic representatives in this country assume anyone from outside the US is a threat. Well WAKE UP if other countries treated Americans as poorly as we treat others who are here on legit grounds they would stand up and ask for changes. However since they are foreigners they have no rights and no one will stand up for them. Pre 9/11 if you had a previous immigration violation occur you were detained in the immigration area and put on the next flight out, not shackled and bused to a detention facility.

    What is embarrassing is Mr. Michael Gilhooly explanation of how he believes we treat people right. GIVE ME A BREAK. I hold my local congressional representatives accountable for these incidents why don’t others? The CBP and ICE is out of control, trying to fight a post 9/11 threat scenario via detaining legit visitors to the US. Detaining ANYONE for an immigration problem in a detention facility is pathetic when *ALL* incoming flights on into US airports from foreign destinations arrive in enough time for a deportee to be sent home within hours. Detaining and making people wait is terrible.

    I hope other nations do a reciprocal process here. Poland should detain and hold US Citizens for a night in jail then deport any problematic US Citizens visiting Poland. See how much of a stink would be made then. Americans need to realize we are not the greatest nation on the Earth when we treat others so poorly and look the other way – expecting others to treat us as Americans properly.


  2. Huseyin

    i read the article above, i am a turkish-american and i am disgusted the way these polish citizens have been treated by the immigration authorities. i know poland is a pro-us country look at them (the us immigration) they don’t even know how to treat their friends. i wonder when and how the us government people will learn how to treat good their friends. thats why the us has a lot of image problems in many countries in the world. hopefully that would change with mr. obama coming in soon. one thing i want to remind my polish friends that, they are not the only ones has been treated this way, many other country people goes thru this horrible experience.

  3. Marc Seguinot

    Why are we so surprised? And if we are, why aren’t we doing something about it? This happens more frequently than most Americans know. The tragedy here is that this type of treatment may not be limited only to visitors, but is extended to lawful permanent residents. Further, this type of treatment is not limited to stopping people at an airport, and is used everywhere around the country. So, if we believe this is not proper procedure at certain points, well, let’s put up a “red flag,” and demand that the government demonstrate that this procedure is necessary for our safety. We need to do something, of course; for all we know, this type of procedure could inadvertently catch a U.S. citizen in its net. I believe U.S. citizens should be informed; I find that they are least informed when it comes to to the practices of immigration authorities.

  4. kevin b.

    ok if these ELDERLY women have nothing to hide then why not use their last names. and all should remember terrorists come in all shapes, sizes and ages. i COMMEND my government for doing their job. THIS IS NO TRAGEDY! MAYBE ONE COULD BEAVERTED IF THIS HAPPENED MORE OFTEN!

  5. Like Marc Seguinot, I’m surprised that folks are surprised. Not to diminish what happened to these folks in any ways as it is indeed horrendous. But this sort of thing happens all the time to Mexican and Latino immigrants, whether legal or not, and as in their haste, ice all too often picks up US citizens and treats them the same. ICE needs to be controlled and taught the importance of humanity, justice and common sense.

  6. Robert

    This is horrendous. I know lots of people who do not want to travel to the US because of this mess. I am a US citizen. But my mum is not. She does not have any visa violations. But if she went through this – she would traumatized. I would never ask her to visit me because the US is an unfriendly place.

  7. Darius

    It’s hardly believe that so great country is afraid of older people.
    I think that your law giving you right to turn around people if there are any doubts. Problem is that why to spend money for all detention process (transportation, clothes and tickets too) when this people coming here are loaded with money for stay. If not will be easier to organize closed waiting room equipped with bathrooms, chairs or sofas and maybe a buffet and let this people wait for next fly home with dignity. They will buy their ticket (rebooked) with airlines and waiting for few or more hours they will spend some money for food and drinks watching TV. Nobody will be scared to come to USA and nobody will complain that was turn back.
    I see some legal problem here. If they can not be admitted, they are still in transit and not under US jurisdiction, until they commit some crime on the airport they should not be detained. Airport is an international area regulated by some convention.
    in addition if there is any political reason to treat people like this, government should explain it, if there is no reason, officers should be check for mental health conditions because probably they are abusing their power.


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  9. Anna Rybak

    People from Poland come here only if they have a valid Visa issued by American Embassy in Warsaw. Immigration at the border should honor that visa and not make their own determination whether a person can enter the country. If you do not want a particular person visit US do not issue a visa. I am outraged by the hate and unjustice from the country where human rights are supposed to be respected.

  10. Bart

    The U.S. has become a country that no one wants come to anymore… The economy is bad and salary is not even high anymore.People come here to shop because it’s so cheap in the states. Americans can’t even afford to come to Europe anymore…

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