The issue of legal vs. illegal immigration has been at the forefront of political discussion since before the 2016 election. Following the 2016 election, executive action, activities in Congress, and rallies and protests on this matter, have kept the issue of immigration at the center of attention. The focus has largely been on the massive flow of individuals unlawfully coming into America through the country’s southern border. Republican leaders have emphasized the need for border security – whether it is in the form of a wall, increased border agents and other personnel, advanced technology, or a combination of these. It is clear that illegal immigration through the southern border has grave consequences for America – it adversely affects the economic and national security of the country – and therefore must be stopped. But while we are engaged in examining the depth of the problem at the southern border and taking action to address it, we must also pay attention to another big problem facing America, and that is the issue of visa overstays.
According to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an “overstay” is “a nonimmigrant who was lawfully admitted to the United States for an authorized period, but remained in the United States beyond his or her lawful period of admission. The lawful admission period can be a fixed period, or based on completion of a certain activity, such as a student seeking a college degree.”[i]
DHS has identified two types of overstays for foreign nationals who enter the United States as nonimmigrant visitors for business or pleasure through an air or sea port-of-entry.
- The first one is when individuals for whom no departure has been recorded, known as “Suspected In-Country Overstays”.
- The second type is comprised of those individuals whose departure was recorded after their lawful period of admission expired, known as “Out-of-Country Overstays”.[ii]
According to DHS, the number of Suspected In-Country Overstays was over 480,000 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. This means that almost half a million people, who were expected to depart the United States between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015, had remained in the country beyond their lawfully authorized period.[iii] In FY2016 (October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016), over 620,000 people, who were expected to depart the country within this timeframe, had overstayed their visas and remained in America.[iv] It is important to note that not all foreign nationals who overstay eventually end up remaining in the country. Due to continuous adjustment, the Suspected In-Country Overstays for FY2015 had dropped to 416,500 by January 2016, and the Suspected In-Country Overstays for FY2016 had decreased to 544,676 by January 2017.[v] In spite of the final adjustments, it is evident that just in those two years, the number of people who remained in the country beyond their lawfully authorized period ranged from over 400,000 to almost 550,000 per year. These are massive numbers of people, and it is therefore clear that visa overstay is a problem that America must address.
According to a report in the Washington Times, immigration agents “catch an abysmally small percentage of the illegal immigrants who arrived on visas but overstayed their welcome.”[vi] The report goes on to state that according to Congressman Lamar Smith, the Obama administration removed 12,500 overstay individuals in 2009, 6,800 in 2012, and 2,500 in 2015.[vii] This clearly shows a declining trend in the deportation of individuals who overstay their visas, under the previous administration. The absence of strong action against unauthorized stay in America is detrimental to the rule of law, as it could potentially lead more foreign nationals to violate the terms of their visas, and continue to remain in the United States, with no fear of legal consequences.
The United States of America, as I reported in a previous blog post using data from DHS (2005 onward), has given permanent residency status (also known as Green Card) to approximately a million individuals each year. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands become naturalized citizens every year.[viii] America is a generous and welcoming country that allows people from all over the world to come to here lawfully, enjoy the freedom in this country, and pursue various educational and economic opportunities. To many, our country provides a proper pathway to permanent residency and/or citizenship. But as data shows, millions of foreign nationals have taken advantage of our system, in the absence of strong border security. Not only have people entered America illegally, but even many who lawfully entered the United States chose to violate their terms of visas and remain in the country beyond their authorized length of stay.
The population of “unauthorized immigrants” has been growing over the years. In 1996, there was an estimated 5.8 million unauthorized immigrants in America. By January 2000, it was 7 million.[ix] Years later, DHS estimated that 12.1 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in January 2014.[x] The lack of strong border security, as well as visa overstays, contributed to the growth of this massive number. This is extremely unfortunate and needs to be addressed.
The problems with America’s immigration and entry/exit system have worsened significantly over the years. The United States should strongly enforce immigration laws and rules and also have strict measures in place to address the problem of visa overstays. Our country’s visa and immigration system should be fair, providing a smooth pathway of entry and exit for those following our laws and rules, and penalties for those who break them.