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.

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AboutEwa Kern-Jedrychowska
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, and has lived in Queens, NY, since 2001. A former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter, Ewa now works as a staff reporter for DNA.info covering Queens. She was formerly a reporter for Nowy Dzienik/The Polish Daily News, where she covered stories about Polish immigrants in the U.S.