The worsening crisis at the southern border has rightfully drawn the attention of the public, as record-breaking numbers of illegal migrants are being waved in by the Biden administration and resettled in communities across the nation at enormous cost to taxpayers. Less obvious, but equally consequential, is the steady stream of new settlers who are admitted on visas but then decide to illegally remain past their allowed duration of stay. According to the latest report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), these “overstayers” numbered more than 500,000 in 2020. They are believed to represent as much as 40 percent of the total illegal alien population and are living proof of the persistent, concerning vulnerabilities present in our immigration system.
Shihab Ahmed Shihab, a citizen of Iraq, is one of the visitors who arrived in 2020 on a tourist visa, and who overstayed his welcome. He spent his time not visiting our national parks or Las Vegas, but working illegally at restaurants and stores in Columbus and Indianapolis, and hatching a plot to assassinate former President George W. Bush, until he was arrested on May 24.
Someone made a big mistake in approving Shihab’s visa, but the government has yet to issue so much as a statement explaining how he managed to get it and what he told immigration officers about his reasons for travel here. Clearly, our vetting failed.
According to the DHS report, more than 400 other Iraqis overstayed visitor visas in 2020. Besides Shahib, the government counted more than 48,000 overstayers from the 10 countries most associated with terrorism.
About half of all overstays are visitors arriving on short-term visas from countries that are not eligible for visa waivers. (The visa waiver-eligible countries are developed nations like France, Japan, and so forth, where most applicants are qualified and the nations share security information with us.) Most of the overstayers in 2020 came from within the Western Hemisphere, with the highest number from Brazil (more than 50,000). Colombia, Venezuela, China, and India round out the list of countries with tens of thousands of overstayers per year.
Foreign students and visa workers also overstay, although not in numbers as large as those coming on tourist visas. The number of scofflaws declined significantly in both of these categories during the Trump administration. In particular, the rate at which student and exchange visitors overstayed was cut in half from 2016 to 2020. This could be due to a general relaxation of pressure on consular officers to rubber-stamp approvals under Trump, higher standards implemented after a series of exchange-visitor scandals, or even an increase in the number of foreign students joining legal work programs after they graduate.
As with illegal border crossers, policies matter, and policy changes can help reduce the problem. The State Department should adjust issuance standards and improve vetting of applicants in countries and categories that have disproportionately high rates of overstays, and hold consular managers accountable for chronic vetting failures. The double-digit overstay rates we have for certain countries like the Philippines, Guatemala, and many others are unacceptable and should trigger a more restrictive approach.
To make matters worse, overstayers face few consequences. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has long ignored the overstay problem, focusing its resources almost exclusively on the small fraction of illegal aliens who commit other crimes. In 2021, ICE went looking for only a few dozen of the millions of overstayers living here.
Consequences should also be imposed on the employers, colleges, exchange programs, and other sponsors of visitors who overstay; if they fail to ensure the return of the foreign visitors they bring in, then they should be penalized or even barred from hosting more visitors in the future.
Such actions will help, but Congress must take the lead—first, by directing DHS to complete the biometric entry-exit system it first legislated in 1996, which was partially launched in 2004 and later expanded, but which has seen no real progress since 2009. That system could support an enhanced enforcement strategy that would include more stringent departure dates and an expedited deportation process for overstays, who can now drag out their immigration proceedings for years.
Prevention is better than enforcement, though. If visa scofflaws could not so easily get a job, a driver’s license, and other benefits, there would be little incentive to remain illegally, and they would comply with the visa or not come in the first place. Deterring illegal employment through expanded use of E-Verify and discouraging sanctuary policies would greatly increase the risks, and lessen the appeal, of overstaying a visa.
Our front-line immigration officers will never have the ability to read the mind of foreign visitors in order to glean their true motives for entering our country, which would be the only foolproof vetting system. Because we want to continue to welcome legitimate temporary visitors from abroad, we need to adjust our laws to try to prevent the next 500,000 overstayers and the unknown threats among them.
Jessica Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
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