As President Donald Trump focuses on border security in his initial actions to counter illegal immigration, a new report shows the unauthorized population increasingly is made up of those who first entered the U.S. legally.
In each year from 2007 to 2014, the report from the Center for Migration Studies finds, more people joined the illegal immigrant population by remaining in the U.S. after their temporary visitor permits expired than by sneaking across the Mexican border.
In 2014, about 4.5 million U.S. residents, or 42 percent of the population of roughly 11 million illegal immigrants, had overstayed their visas, the report says.
Overstays accounted for about two-thirds—66 percent—of those who ended up joining the illegal immigrant population in 2014.
“What’s happened is that popular conception has made it seem that illegal immigration means people coming from the southern border,” Robert Warren, a co-author of the report, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “One of the reasons we put the report out is that illegal immigration is much more varied and we need to look at different policy options.”
Visa overstays—legal entrants to the U.S. who stay past their allotted time here—long have been the underreported component of illegal immigration.
A report by the Department of Homeland Security found that as of Jan. 4, 2016, a total of 416,500 of the 527,127 overstays in 2015 remained in the U.S. More have left the country since then, the government said.
The Trump administration has referred to visa overstays, but so far has concentrated on fulfilling the president’s campaign promise to build a wall across the southern border.
“There’s this assumption in the Trump administration that the southern border is out of control and people are flooding across it, but we have much better control of the border now than we did in previous decades,” Edward Alden, an immigration and visa policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “Whereas this other problem of visa overstays is increasingly becoming out of control.”
‘Shining a Light’
Trump’s revised executive order temporarily banning travel from six terrorism-prone, Muslim-majority countries contains some language related to combating visa overstays.
The president calls for Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to pursue “expedited completion” of a long-promised and delayed system to obtain biometric data—such as fingerprints, facial recognition images, and eye scans—on those leaving the country. Such a system would tell the government who has left the country, and how many who should have departed are still here.
In 2004, the 9/11 Commission recommended the Department of Homeland Security complete an entry and exit system “as soon as possible,” viewing it as an important national security tool because two of the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, had overstayed their visas.
Foreigners who apply to enter the U.S. on a visa are interviewed and photographed and have their fingerprints taken at a consulate overseas before arriving here. But collecting biometric data on those exiting the country is not as easy.
Plagued by financial and logistical challenges, the government has introduced various pilot projects at some airports and land borders, but has struggled to implement a biometric exit system on a large scale.
Trump’s executive order asks Kelly to provide ongoing reports on the progress of an entry-exit system, but it does not impose a concrete timetable for completion.
“For a long time, administrations didn’t take the visa overstay issue seriously,” Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “Hopefully with the White House’s light shining on the issue, we will see more progress on the entry-exit system, but it’s the kind of thing that will take a while. It’s a process, not an event like the border wall is.”
The Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, supports construction of the wall.
Shift in Behavior
The report from the Center for Migration Studies, which opposes the border wall, concludes that the biggest reason for the shift since 2007 toward more visa overstays, and fewer border-crossers, is the significant drop in illegal arrivals from Mexico in that time frame.
Mexico is the leading country for both overstays and arrivals across the border, representing about 55 percent of the illegal immigrant population, the study says.
But U.S. border apprehensions of Mexicans has fallen sharply, from 809,000 in 2007 to just 230,000 in fiscal year 2014—a level not seen since 1971, according to the Pew Research Center.
Alden, of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the trend toward an increasing percent of visa overstays and fewer border apprehensions of Mexicans shows that the Trump administration should not focus on building a wall — especially at a cost estimated to be as high as $25 billion.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to be spending most of our money fortifying the part of the border under the best control and ignoring visa overstays, which is getting worse,” Alden said.
But Krikorian counters that the Trump administration can have multiple focuses. He says the deterrent force of a wall is important.
“It’s one thing to say we need more of an emphasis on tracking and prosecuting overstays, and it’s a very different thing to say we shouldn’t bother with the border anymore,” Krikorian said, adding:
Yes, it does cost a great deal of money, and yes, for me, it’s not job No. 1 in a policy sense. But in a broader political sense it sends an important signal that the government is actually serious about illegal immigration control.
Trump’s early clampdown and rhetoric on illegal immigration may be having an impact. Roughly 840 people a day were caught illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico last month, according to Customs and Border Protection, a drop of about 39 percent from January.
“If the wall doesn’t go beyond being a symbol, and it just becomes an excuse to avoid doing those other things—like stopping overstays—than we have a problem,” Krikorian said. “I don’t get that sense from this administration.”
Beyond finishing the biometric entry-exit system, experts say there are quicker ways the Trump administration can tackle visa overstays.
In new memos detailing Trump’s interior enforcement policies on immigration, the Department of Homeland Security says it will broaden the scope of those targeted for deportation. Besides convicted criminals, they will include those charged with a crime or accused of a chargeable offense.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Homeland Security Department, already has a team dedicated to pursuing illegal immigrants who overstayed their visas. The Trump administration could use its new deportation priorities to expand the pool of overstays whom immigration officers go after.
“The technology for entry-exit is getting better, so I can understand it’s getting less unrealistic,” said David Inserra, an expert on homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. “But rather than build an expensive list generator telling you who hasn’t left the country, I would rather have more counterterrorism analysts, ICE agents, or any number of things. If you allow ICE agents to do their jobs in a more complete and robust manner, you will inevitably catch more overstays and will encourage less overstays because they see and know they will be removed.”
The government also can take simpler steps to deter visa overstays by emailing reminders to foreigners of their expected departure date, specifying the consequences of not leaving on time.
Many who overstay their visas don’t intend to settle in America, Alden said, and simply don’t know when they have to leave.
“The biometric entry-exit system has been the unreachable holy grail,” Alden said. “But it doesn’t really get at the real problem. The problem is not an identification problem. The question is how do we discourage the act of overstaying a visa in the first place.”