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Visa Overstays Present Challenge For Immigration Reform


Aired 3/6/13

Among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, some 40 percent entered the U.S. legally with a temporary visa. But once they arrived, they decided to stay.

Cristina Esquivel

Relatives wait outside the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, where Mexican citizens can apply for a temporary visa.

— Among the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, some 40 percent entered the United States legally with a temporary visa. But once they arrived, they decided to stay. Tracking them down is one of the biggest challenges facing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Worldwide, people who wish to take a vacation or study in the United States must start at their nearest U.S. Consulate.

At the consulate in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, staff can process up to 1,000 applications a day. Applicants must fill out detailed paperwork, turn in a photograph of themselves, provide fingerprints and be interviewed by a consular agent.

"People have to demonstrate what we call ties to their country of origin," said Olga Bashbush, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Juárez. "If you're an adult, that means you have job here. If you are student, that you're going to school, that you have family, relatives, you have some sort of life to go back to."

In other words, the consulate wants to be sure you'll go home before your visa expires. Non-immigrant visas come in several varieties, including one for tourists, another for temporary workers and a third for students.

Last year close to 9 million people worldwide received temporary visas to the U.S.

One of tourists who decided to stay is a 24-year-old Argentinean woman who asked not to be named.

"I came to the US when I was 14-years old," she said. "I came like most people on vacation to go to Disneyland ... and after the three months I stayed here."

She overstayed her visa and now lives in California, where she attends college.

"I began to be involved in school, participate in clubs, honor classes, I was in the tennis team, so I thought, 'This was like a dream,'" she said.

But not entirely. This student can't legally drive or work in the United States. And unless she commits a serious crime, she's unlikely to get caught.

Historically, the U.S. government hasn’t aggressively pursued visa violators, said researcher Edward Alden. He studies immigration policy for the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.

"It's not surprising that a fair number of people thought, 'Well this is a way to come to the United States and continue to live in the United States,'" Alden said.

That lack of enforcement has created problems for the United States.

"Immediately the concern about visa overstays is that it potentially could be a way for terrorists to come and remain in the United States," Alden said. "Several of the 9/11 high jackers had come on legal visas and then overstayed."

After 9/11, DHS started programs to prevent potentially dangerous foreigners from getting a temporary visa. Other programs attempt to better track foreigners. For example, the U.S. Visit Program collects biographical data and fingerprints from foreign visitors. Alden said the program is fairly successful at tracking arrivals and departures from airports. But land crossings are another story.

At the southern ports of entry customs agents document the entry of all travelers. But on the other side no one is tracking their exits. With 350 million southern border crossers each year, DHS claims tracking exits may be logistically and financially unrealistic. Media liaisons from multiple DHS branches refused to be interviewed for this story.

Reporters aren't the only ones searching for answers. California Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano at a Congressional hearing last month.

"For many years I've been trying to get data on visa overstays from each country to no avail so far," Feinstein told Napolitano at the hearing.

Napolitano responded by promising to have more overstay data later this year. The issue is a critical puzzle piece in the ongoing debate over immigration reform.

Alden, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said DHS can take simple measures to help reduce the number of visa overstays. He suggests immigration officials send foreigners an email notice a couple weeks before their visa expires.

"There's plenty of social science evidence that individuals are far more likely to follow the law if they think someone is watching them," he said.

Without stricter enforcement, critics contend the problem of visa violators will simply continue.

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Avatar for user 'Real_MF_G'

Real_MF_G | March 7, 2013 at 7:06 a.m. ― 4 years ago

Obama has created an veritable run for the border. It doesn't matter if you sneak across, in the middle of the night, or violate your visa; once you're hear, you apply for a provisional waiver and you've bypassed the costly and extended process of legal immigration. It goes to further break down the systems that keep things in order and define these states as a country. Yeah, Obama's delivering on his promise of change.

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Avatar for user 'bailarin'

bailarin | March 7, 2013 at 7:59 a.m. ― 4 years ago


I was at a VA Regional office waiting room with another veteran who was complaining about the benefits undocumented aliens are receiving. I asked him if he knows what President Reagan did while in office to the undocumented alien problem. His reply was "he sent them back?". I had to refrain from laughing when I told him that Reagan legalized the undocumented aliens. That action attracted more of them to come.

The undocumented is the least of our problems. Do you know about the H1-B visa program passed by the U.S. Congress? This program allows Corporate America to hire foreign high-tech professionals if they cannot find qualified American high-tech workers. In Corporate America lingo, "Qualified" means someone willing to accept low wages. If you look at the parking lots of Fortune 500 high-tech companies you will see hundreds if not thousand of Asian Indian engineers and programmers on H1-B visa. I know people who have been warned by their bosses that with the pay they are making they can be replaced by three or more Asian Indians.

Another visa program that takes away jobs from young Americans is the J1 visa program. This program provides seasonal foreign workers to ski resorts and theme parks. This is one of the major reasons for the very high unemployment of young adults.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 7, 2013 at 8:44 a.m. ― 4 years ago

The vet at the VA and REAL MF demosntrate the ignorance that most people have on this subject. Many people comment as if they had the facts and figures at their finger tips, which they do not. They only comment because they heard it in some other media and not because they actually researched it or read studies, books, etc

Obama's policies have nothing to do with stay-over visas. That is a ridiculous assertion.

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Avatar for user 'Real_MF_G'

Real_MF_G | March 7, 2013 at 9:15 a.m. ― 4 years ago

@Missionaccomplished Don't dismiss me because of my looks; I have first hand knowledge of the legal immigration process. It's a lot cheaper and quicker to come hear on a tourist visa and stay. Why would anyone not take advantage of that if they knew it was, now, a viable path to citizenship?

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 9:30 a.m. ― 4 years ago

bailarin - what you describe in regards to H1-B visas is called the free market. If someone is willing to do the same job for less money, they should get the job. If I was a manager and I had two equally qualified people, but one was willing to work for less money, I would absolutely hire the one with a lower salary requirement. Who wouldn't? Businesses exist to make money, not to act as charities.

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Avatar for user 'jskdn'

jskdn | March 7, 2013 at 12:18 p.m. ― 4 years ago

We could require the bonding of foreign visitors, either by private bonding firms or by the visitor's government. That would help pay for the expense of enforcement against visa violators as well as create social pressure in the sending countries against visa violations, as their prevalence would raise costs for other people in those countries.

But the more fundamental problem really is that we have a government that represents the widespread belief among the elites that our immigration laws don't really matter, and that those who violate them ought to be rewarded for doing so. That is what is being pushed by these elites right now under what they call “reform,” a term that by definition is a function of what people believe is wrong and what will make it better. Violate the law by ignoring the terms of your visa and these elites seek to reward you with permanent legal residence and citizenship. And that's after the sufficient-in-itself rewards of non-enforcement in the interior and easy access to employment and other kinds of benefits available to those illegally in the country. It's like saying we “really” (wink, wink) don't want you to violate your visa (or other immigration laws) but if you choose to do so, we will work hard to reward you for that.

And Edward Alden is part of the elite who are the real problem, as is true with Diane Feinstein. Go see the CFR's “Independent Task Force Report No. 63” where Alden was project director and Jeb Bush, whose been all over the news media with his new book promoting amnesty, was a chair. Outside of task force member Robert C. Bonner's solo and sensible call for ending citizenship birth, the report was just another of the endless promotions for the elite's immigration agenda.

Diane Feinstein used to support the rule of law regarding illegal immigration until she went into back rooms with its promoters in the ag industry and reversed her position.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 12:25 p.m. ― 4 years ago

jskdn a bonding program for legal entrants is a strategy employed in Singapore and Hong Kong. A citizen must pay a substantial (several thousand dollars) deposit for every foreign worker they import. When that worker exits the country, they get their deposit back. Since a large corporation wouldn't really mind losing a $5,000 deposit if their worker ran away, it might help to require the visa applicant to pay a deposit which would be returned upon their exit.

Again, if someone is h**l bent on coming to this country and staying past their visa, they will consider this deposit the cost of doing so. But it might motivate the casual potential overstayer to not overstay their visa.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | March 7, 2013 at 2:03 p.m. ― 4 years ago

The bond should be significantly higher than the application and processing fees to prevent a perverse incentive.

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Avatar for user 'proshanne'

proshanne | March 7, 2013 at 7:32 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Just to clarify, for students visa status does not determine the legal status. Visa is just for the purpose of entry to US. As long as a student is full time enrolled in school and maintain legal f-1 status, he/she is legal as long as they stay. Visa status does not categorize over stayed students as illegal immigrants.

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Avatar for user 'hmalegal'

hmalegal | March 7, 2013 at 9:10 p.m. ― 4 years ago

I've been an immigration lawyer for 10 years. A tourist visa is no easy ticket to citizenship. A provisional waiver is not easy to get; DHS made clear that exactly the same hardship standards would apply. All that changed is the filing location - and even then, the alien has to leave the US and still could be denied an immigrant visa. If that's a bypass - hell, might as well sit through traffic.

And H-1B employers are bound to pay the prevailing wage for their jobs. Do you know how much scrutiny companies - especially the smaller ones - are getting from USCIS to root out the third-party job shops? Have you ever talked to a technical recruiter and heard them complain they have to go foreign because there simply aren't enough qualified American workers to fill the needed positions?

I get really, really tired of seeing comments from people who just don't understand the system. It's a system so complex it needs lawyers just to navigate through it, yet folks chatter on with absolutely no appreciation for how badly the system is broken, nor what's required to fix it.

Hassan Ahmad

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Avatar for user 'VivaLaMigra'

VivaLaMigra | March 8, 2013 at 2:35 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Gotta love the excuses that these now ILLEGAL aliens dream up to justify their law-breaking, don't you? The biggest LIE they tell is that they aren't illegal, merely "out of status!" IOW, they promised to obey the law, but opted for personal gain at the expense of their integrity. They can't be trusted to keep their word...they've already proven that.

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Avatar for user 'pcomey'

pcomey | March 15, 2013 at 10:12 a.m. ― 4 years ago

The author of this article is wrong on the following statement: "At the southern ports of entry customs agents document the entry of all travelers." First of all, there is no such thing as "customs agents." The officers working the border (ports of entry) are Customs & Border Protection officers, i.e., customs AND immigration. Customs does not exist as a separate entity (there is no longer a Customs Service). The officers are not "agents," agents are Border Patrol agents or ICE Special Agents. You might say this is quibbling, but it's important to get the facts right. More importantly, the CBP officers do NOT document the entry of all travelers. American citizens are not documented at all, although they are required to prove citizenship. Most aliens are not documented either. The majority are border crossers, i.e, in possession of a border crossing card. They are only documented if they intend to leave the immediate border area or stay more than 3 days.

The statement that DHS is fairly successful at tracking arrivals at airports (well, of course, they have to go through a visa check) is true, but what's the basis of his statement that departures are tracked well? Aliens are simply required to turn in their paper Arrival/Departure Record at check-in, but no one follows up to see whether that was done (no government official validates this requirement). Congress has mandated that records be kept of arrivals and departures, but as the article says, this isn't easy.

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