For the Seventh Consecutive Year, a Majority of the Undocumented Immigrant Population Entered the U.S. Legally

By: Courtney Kaiser

Last month, President Trump declared a national emergency on the Mexican border in order to access billions in funding to build a border wall.  The President asserts that the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico constitutes a profound threat to national security and justifies the use of emergency action.  However, preventing illegal immigration across the southwest border is just one element of border security, according the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Despite the current publicity on fixing the U.S.’s undocumented immigration problem through a border wall, research shows that people who enter the U.S. legally and then overstay their visas are adding to the undocumented population at nearly double the rate of border crossers.

For the seventh consecutive year, the number of people overstaying their visas in the U.S. has exceeded the number of those crossing the border illegally.  According to a study by the Center for Migration Studies, in 2004, visa overstays accounted for only 34% of illegal entries in the U.S.  By 2014, overstays accounted for 66% of the undocumented immigrant population.  Of the estimated 515,000 arrivals in 2016, 62% overstayed their visas and 38% entered the country without inspection.

In 2016, Mexico was the leading country for overstays, accounting for one third of all undocumented Mexican immigrant arrivals that year.  Approximately 50,000 were overstays, compared to the 95,000 who entered without inspection.  Mexico also leads in the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. compared to other countries.  Next on the list are India and China, both with approximately 25,000 overstays each.  Venezuela follows with approximately 20,000 overstays.

The study, however, found that there has been a decrease in the undocumented population from Mexico.  The report also found that the undocumented population from Mexico, that arrived prior to 2016, was about 5.6 million.  In 2017, this number dropped to 5.1 million.  The half-a-million decrease includes those who were removed, returned home, changed visa status, or died.  Furthermore, from 2010 to 2017, there has been a 20% decrease in the undocumented population of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.  Globally, between 2010 and 2017, there has been an increase in the percentages of undocumented immigrants from 8 of the top 15 countries, including El Salvador, India, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela.

So, who is overstaying their visas?  One group of visa holders that warrants concern is student and exchange visitors in the U.S.  According to DHS’s Entry-Exit Overstay report of 2017, the nonimmigrants entering with a F, M, or J visa and overstaying their authorized window for departure have the highest overstay rate compared to other admission types.  The total overstay rate for this group in 2017 was 4.15%, or approximately 69,000 people admitted as student or exchange visitors.  This percentage excludes Canada or Mexico student or exchange visitors.  Currently, international students and scholars can be granted a “duration of status” that lasts for the entirety of their studies and training.  This duration policy allows international students flexibility in meeting their scholarly goals, allowing them to remain in the U.S. so long as they are actively pursuing their education.  When an applicant violates their status and, if status is withdrawn, the student must leave the U.S. within 180 days.  The USCIS, however, does not always inform applicants of violations and many are unaware that they no longer have a valid student visa.

Last year, the current administration took steps to decrease student overstays and fix the confusion regarding the visa process.  The administration proposed establishing fixed maximum periods of stay for international students to limit any confusion regarding expirations.  Additionally, the administration changed “unlawful presence” violations in August of 2018, that could result in international and exchange visitors being barred from the U.S. for up to 10 years for overstaying their visas.  Other methods have been taken to increase the notification process of immigrants receiving violations, overstaying their durations, or approaching visa expiration.  It is too soon to tell whether these changes have impacted the number of students overstaying their visas.

It is clear, however, that additional research is still needed to determine exactly who and how immigrants are entering and remaining in the U.S. past their visa expirations.  The DHS and U.S. Border Patrol have taken efforts to better estimate these trends and pursue additional frameworks to evaluate the current state of border security.  The DHS has also made improvements in the collection of data on all admissions including the collection of biometric data of immigrants and reducing the number of documents that may be used for entry to the U.S.

As news outlets and immigration reform efforts seem to focus on the border wall, scholars suggest that border enforcement resources might be better directed in other areas, specifically toward those that focus on the primary source of undocumented immigration, overstaying temporary visas.  In addition to simplifying international students’ visa requirements, options include increasing the screening of visitors at visa-issuing posts, assessing the causes of the flights of large numbers of refugees to the U.S., or supporting the rule of law and economic developments in Central American countries so refugees, including those granted TPS,  may safely return home.

Americans continue to be severely divided on whether a strong border wall, and the costs associated with its implementation, will truly impact the number of immigrants entering without inspection and, ultimately, the undocumented population in the U.S.  However, the growing number of visa overstays in the U.S. confirm additional significant problems in the U.S. immigration policy; Problems that a strong border wall will not fix.


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