Beyond the Border: Immigration Debate Must Include Visa Entry-Exit System

Published on March 27th, 2013

By Joe Guzzardi
March 27, 2013

During the ongoing Capitol Hill comprehensive immigration reform debate, one key element which adds to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrant population is ignored. Quoting U.S. Rep Robert Andrews (D-NJ), the “number -one source” of illegal immigration is visa overstays.

Too many people who arrive in the United States on legal, government issued visa never return. When their visas’ time limit expires, the once invited guests disappear into society to become illegal aliens. The most frequently abused are the seemingly benign tourist and student visas.

Pinpointing the exact number of overstays is difficult. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) puts the total overstays among the illegal alien population between 27 to 57 percent, a calculation that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said is too low. The GAO reasoned that DHS studies only the quantified illegal alien population and that many overstays eventually became legal residents and who the DHS therefore didn’t include in its analysis.

Because immigration law as it applies to B-1 tourist visas is broadly written, most foreign visitors could and perhaps should be denied admission as “intending immigrants,” meaning that they’re potential overstays.

Nevertheless, about 75 percent of all visitor visa applications are approved, debunking the widely held myth that immigration admission standards are tighter post 9/11. And since developed countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most of Western Europe don’t need visas to enter, that means that many from undeveloped countries are admitted but may never return.

The J-1 student visa is no better managed than the B-1 visa. For more than 20 years, government auditors have warned the State Department that businesses use the annual 100,000 J-1 recipients for cheap labor. Human trafficking is another J-1 related problem, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In short, the United States is the easiest country to enter and the easiest to remain in undetected. Two possible solutions have been kicked around for years without progress on either. First, eliminate the ability to adjust status from non-immigrant to legal permanent resident without first returning home. Adjusting status once inside the U.S. is one of the biggest incentives to come to America: Arrive as a visitor, change status to permanent resident, and then eventually apply for citizenship. As an extreme example, the 9/11 Commission learned that many of the terrorists used adjusted status as a method to remain in the U.S. while they plotted their attacks.

More effective however would be to implement a viable entry-exit system, a tool successfully used by other world powers to control immigration but which the United States has resisted for years. Since 2004, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security have spent $1 billion to establish an entry-exit system. But DHS has repeatedly said that it’s too expensive to install an exit system and that, if implemented, could disrupt trade. In 2012, DHS again missed its exit system deadline and has not prepared a progress report that would outline a revised timetable.

But consider the risks in delaying. During 2011, a record 62 million visitors came to the United States, up 4 percent from 2010. While Canada was the number one tourism source, B-1 visas were also issued to people from countries with less friendly intentions toward the United States including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.

The immigration reform debate will resume when Congress returns from its spring break. Most of the focus will be on the border. But without an entry-exit program to identify who’s in the country and who’s left, there’s no way to permanently end illegal immigration.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Senior Writing Fellow whose columns have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected]

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