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By GRISELDA NEVAREZ
Cronkite News Service
PHOENIX _ While studying in his native Mexico to become an architect, Jose used a tourist visa to enter the U.S. to buy equipment for his father’s industrial maintenance business.
The visa expired in 2004, but Jose remains in Phoenix, remodeling houses making as much in a week here as he would in a month as an architect back home. He said remaining illegally was an easy decision after he had his first child with a woman in the U.S.
“I felt that I had no choice but to stay and support my family,” he said.
Guadalupe, who came here with his wife and two sons using tourist visas, earned twice as much as an engineer in Mexico than he does as a retail store supervisor in the East Valley. But he said the idea of escaping the crime and violence in his native country was too appealing, and they’ve been in the U.S. since 2006.
“Once I was here, I realized there were greater opportunities for me and my family, and I no longer feared for our safety,” he said.
While the term illegal immigration often evokes images of people eluding authorities at the border, a large share of those in the country illegally are people who came on tourist, student and work visas and simply stayed.
U.S. officials say the sheer number of people who stay after their visas expire _ an estimated 300,000 a year _ along with record-keeping and manpower constraints make it impossible to track every person with a story like Jose’s and Guadalupe’s.
Cronkite News Service agreed to identify both men only by their first names to protect their identities.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a research group that studies issues, attitudes and trends among the Hispanic population, estimated in 2006 that almost half of the 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. came here with visas and stayed after they expired.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has cited the Pew report, estimated that as of 2000 those who overstayed visas accounted for one-third of all illegal immigrants. A 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office report said that estimate was almost certainly too low.
Evelyn Cruz, an immigration law professor at Arizona State University, said the large percentage of immigrants who stay after their visas expire illustrates an incomplete approach to combating illegal immigration.
“We are spending a lot of money and resources on protecting the border from those crossing illegally, but that’s not the only way people are crossing the border,” Cruz said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director for Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research group, said the federal government’s inability to track those who overstay their visas can threaten national security. He noted that four of the 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. on expired visas.
“There’s essentially no chance that anybody is going to come after them … and they will remain unknown to the government,” he said.
Federal officials say that with 6 million people coming into the U.S. each year on non-immigrant visas, which allow them to work, study or visit here, limits on manpower and money make it impossible to track every person. Instead, officials focus on those thought to pose national security risks.
“It is a resource issue when you consider the volume of people that come to the United States and the volume of overstayed data that we have,” said Kimberly Weissman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, a national group pushing for tougher laws against illegal immigration, said the government needs a more effective system for addressing those who stay after their visas expire.
“If you come here with a visa and don’t leave when you’re supposed to, then we should be finding you and sending you home,” he said. “We cannot allow anyone to come and take away anything that belongs to tax-paying Americans.”
Difficult to Track
Since 2007, more than 300,000 individuals each year have remained after their visas expire, a top official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told members of Congress at a March hearing on the issue.
At that hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, an official with the Department of Homeland Security also pointed to gaps in the current system for tracking visa holders as they enter and exit the country. Those start with a form, the I-94, that visa holders must turn in when entering and leaving the country, according to Rand Beers, under secretary for the agency’s National Protection and Programs Directorate.
Matching entry and exit forms for individuals is key to the agency’s efforts keep tabs on visa holders, but individuals leaving the country often fail to turn in I-94s, Beers said.
Edward Alden, the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow with the nonpartisan think tank Council on Foreign Relations, told the committee that airlines sometimes lose the paperwork and it’s difficult for officials to match I-94s for those who enter and exit the country by different means or through different ports of entry.
Those entry and exit forms feed into United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, a system established in 2004 to verify the status of visa holders through manual and automated reviews I-94 data as well as fingerprints and photographs and checks of data documenting changes in visa status.
In a telephone interview with Cronkite News Service, Alden said the effectiveness of US-VISIT depends on the ability to match entries and exits through I-94s.
“Unless you have a way of tracking whether people leave when they’re supposed to under their visas that’s a major hole in the immigration system,” he said.
By and large, individuals who remain in the U.S. after their visas expire are more educated than those who cross the border illegally, in part because they must demonstrate proof of completing higher education, having a skilled job or being economically stable, said Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis.
As legal immigrants, many in this group would work in better-paying jobs, Peri said, but without documentation most wind up competing for low-paying jobs along with those who entered the country illegally.
“They are settling for lower wages even though they could be working in the jobs they are skilled for,” Peri said.
Rep. Ben R. Miranda, D-Phoenix, said the U.S. would benefit from the potential contributions of those who stay after visas expire.
“These people are fairly educated; these people can make a contribution to the United States,” he said. “The only reason that they’re here and they’ve overstayed their visas is because they see an opportunity here.”
Jose, who remained in Phoenix after his visa expired, said that while he’s glad to be in the U.S. he’s frustrated as well because he’d prefer to work as an architect or open a small business.
“I feel like my hands are tied and I can’t do what I really want to,” he said.
“The U.S. is losing out from all the talents we have to offer,” said Guadalupe, the retail store supervisor.
But Anna Gaines, founder and chairwoman of American Citizens United, an Arizona group that supports tougher laws against illegal immigration, said there are no lost opportunities in situations such as Jose’s and Guadalupe’s.
“They had that coming to them when they decided to break the law by staying here, and now they are facing the consequences,” she said.
The Federal Response
Kimberly Weissman, the Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, said US-VISIT has enhanced the federal government’s ability to identify and apprehend those who stay after their visas expire.
“This allows us to have greater integrity with our immigration system so that we know travelers who come to the United States have actually abided to the terms of their admission,” she said.
For now, the department focuses on those considered threats to national security, with a Compliance Enforcement Unit within ICE making manual checks and using automated searches to develop a priority list.
From 2006 to 2009, about 46,000 visa holders were added to that list, and about 1,800 of them were apprehended by ICE, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Jason Kidd, a spokesman for ICE, said the agency doesn’t have the resources and personnel to find and arrest everyone on the list.
“There’s more than we can do, so we have to prioritize who we go after,” he said.
In addition, the department uses the US-VISIT to produce alerts on those who records show left the country after staying 180 days or more past the end of their visa terms and as such are barred from re-entering the U.S. for no less than three years. Of about 38,000 people for whom the department generated alerts between 2006 and 2009, about 4,400 were stopped from re-entering the country, the department reported.
In his testimony before Congress, Rand Beers, the under secretary for the agency’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, said the agency is partnering with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a better automated system for matching records of arrivals with departures.
Weissman said federal officials are considering a system that would collect visa holders’ fingerprints as they leave the U.S. through airlines to match them with the fingerprints already collected when visa holders enter the U.S.
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan research group, said tracking and arresting every 1,000th individual who has an expired visa would send a message.
“The point is to persuade more people to comply with the law voluntarily,” Camarota said.
Edward Alden, with the Council on Foreign Relations, said having a reliable system for tracking visa holders will become more important as enforcement increases along the border.
“As we continue to tighten up the borders and make it harder for people to get across between ports of entry, they’re more likely to look for ways to abuse the visa system,” he said.
With President Barack Obama urging Congress to take up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, the U.S. would benefit from the increased tax revenue that could be generated if those here with expired visas move into jobs for which they are qualified, said Carlos Velez-Ibanez, chair of ASU’s Department of Transborder Chicano/a and Latina/o Studies.
“We are talking about a possible advantage in human capital,” he said.
A recent report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California said the most educated undocumented immigrants would most likely move into high-tech and better paying jobs if allowed to stay in the U.S. legally.
But Carmen Mercer, president for Minuteman Civil Defense Corp., a group that advocates for tougher enforcement along the border, said legalizing foreigners with expired visas would hurt American workers.
“We have immigration laws and rules for visa holders; if they don’t follow the law, then they don’t deserve to be here and take American jobs,” she said.
Miranda, the state representative, said fear drives such concerns.
“In reality they won’t cost us jobs; we’ll expand the economy,” he said.
Guadalupe said he hasn’t left the country because he hopes a comprehensive immigration reform will open up a pathway to allow him to work as an engineer and allow his two sons to get a college education.
“Given the opportunity, we would be able to contribute so much to this country,” he said.
During his free time, Jose said he draws sketches of buildings hoping to one day be able to work as an architect. He said a comprehensive immigration reform would allow him and others with similar talents to practice their skills.
“There are a lot of hidden talents that are going to waste and a comprehensive immigration reform would put those talents to work,” he said.
PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images.
A border wall a few miles from Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Ariz., is shown in this 2008 photo. While the term illegal immigrant often evokes images of people eluding authorities at the border, a large share of those in the U.S. illegally arrived with non-immigrant visas and stayed. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Courtney Sargent)