Trump just announced that Poles can come to the U.S. without needing visas
Last week, Trump added Poland to the Visa Waiver Program, which will allow Polish citizens to travel to the United States without a visa. This has been an important policy goal for Poland for several decades; every recent Polish government has pushed for visa-free travel to the United States. However trivial this might seem, it is about much more than ease of travel for Polish tourists and business people. It’s about status. Despite being a major European Union country and a loyal U.S. ally, Poland was until now one of only five E.U. countries whose citizens required a visa to enter the United States — which Poles, and Polish Americans, universally perceived as an injustice and a slight.
Trump’s announcement last Friday immediately made the news in Poland. With the parliamentary elections coming this Sunday, many observers consider the visa decision a gift to the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party — although polling suggests they may be strong favorites to secure a second term in office even without Trump’s help. Ruling-party politicians claimed credit for the policy change, and the pro-government media amplified that message.
Polish American voters are the key audience for this decision
In September 2016, Trump met with the leaders of the Polish American Congress, the largest Polish organization in the United States — and promised to include Poland in the visa waiver program. To millions of Polish Americans across the U.S., fulfilling this promise signals that he cares about their community.
According to the Census Bureau, more than 9 million Americans claim Polish ancestry, roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population. While many Americans are aware of the rich Polish heritage of Chicago and New York, what’s more important is that Polish Americans tend to live in places that proved important in Trump’s 2016 election. For example, many of the pivotal counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania that flipped from Obama to Trump — such as Macomb County in Michigan (12 percent Polish) and Luzerne County in Pennsylvania (15 percent Polish) — include some of the most highly concentrated numbers of Polish Americans in the United States. Michigan and Pennsylvania, in general, have some of the largest Polish American communities in the country, representing roughly 9 and 7 percent of the total population in each respective state. Trump has bragged repeatedly about having Polish American support. In return, many community leaders have signaled their support.
Whether Polish Americans actually voted for Trump in large numbers, however, is not clear. Attaching too much meaning to county-level votes is an ecological fallacy. Polish Americans have not always voted as a bloc. Polling that I conducted with the Piast Institute, a Polish American research center in Detroit, in 2010 and 2013 shows that Polish Americans preferred Barack Obama to John McCain and Mitt Romney, much like Americans as a whole.
At the same time, however, Polish Americans tend to be more conservative than liberal, and socially conservative in particular. Most indicate that Catholic faith is one of their identity’s key values. Polls also show that the visa waiver is viewed as the most important issue in Polish American relations.
Further, Polish Americans harbor some resentment about their place in American society. A majority, or 58 percent, believe that Poles in the United States don’t get the same amount of public respect as other ethnic groups, and just over 50 percent believe that they themselves were treated unfairly because of their ethnic origins. The most common forms of discrimination they mentioned were offensive or stereotypical remarks, or insensitive humor about their names or ethnicity. This combination of resentment and generally conservative dispositions may mean that the Trump campaign’s welcome has been embraced in the Polish American community.
Taken together, the relatively obscure piece of news from last week reveals that Trump has been taking his perceived Polish American support seriously and is working to secure that vote in 2020. It also highlights that the national media discussion of almost mythical lands like Macomb and Luzerne counties lacks nuance about who exactly lives there. Recent focus on white identity might benefit by examining more sets of identities lumped under whiteness, including ethnic identities, such as identifying as Polish.
Dominik Stecula (@decustecu) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, a nonresident postdoctoral fellow in political science at Simon Fraser University, and researcher and member of the board of directors at the Piast Institute, a national institute for Polish and Polish American affairs.