Visa Overstays Become Central Illegal Immigration Issue

(ESPAÑOL) Visa overstays could be outstripping over-the-border illegal entry, to the surprise of all involved.

The nexus of illegal immigration into the U.S. has shifted away from the southwest border and into the country’s air and sea ports, where more than 54 million visitors checked in last year — and nearly 630,000 of them didn’t go home, according to new numbers released Monday.

Known as visa overstays, the visitors present a different challenge than the border crossers, and one that Homeland Security officials are still trying to figure out how to handle.

“This report shows that we have a problem with visa overstays in the United States,” a senior administration official said in briefing reporters on the new numbers, vowing to step up enforcement to try to cut down on the violations.

Indeed, more than 98.5 percent of those admitted through airports and seaports departed before their admissions expired in 2016. But the sheer amount of travel — some 54 million visitors who came through those air and sea ports — means even that small overstay rate works out to nearly 740,000 illegal immigrants.

Some of the overstays were short term, and the foreigners did leave eventually, but the majority were long-term problems.

Nearly 630,000 immigrants were still in the U.S. at the end of 2016, for a persistent overstay rate of 1.25 percent.

Student visas and exchange visitors were the worst violators, with some countries averaging overstay rates above 20 percent.

Almost none of the visa overstays are investigated, Homeland Security officials told Congress last year. Just 2,500 visa overstay cases resulted in deportations in 2015, or a fraction of 1 percent of the problem.

While it’s difficult to know exact numbers, some analysts say that for every illegal immigrant nabbed at the border, another one gets through. That means that fewer than 500,000 new illegal immigrants a year have snuck in.

Illegal overstays, meanwhile, easily top that number now, according to the new statistics.

A partial report was released last year, but it only covered basic tourist and business visas, not student visas or other categories that grant foreigners prolonged access and a chance to make a life in the U.S.

Those additional categories in this year’s report are likely one reason the numbers are higher.

The report only covers arrivals and departures by air and sea, not land ports of entry, where inspection is less thorough — though those crossing are usually locals who are going back and forth regularly, and stay near the border.