The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) estimates that of the roughly 12-13 million illegal immigrants in the United States, about 5 million are here because they simply overstayed their visas. Those numbers came from a report in 2014, but the trend is continuing and the CMS is now saying that since 2014 that number is 66% of all illegal immigration! The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that 629,000 overstayed their visas in 2016, and while that represents a little over 1% of all travelers to the U.S. (about 50 million foreigners travel to the U.S. annually), it does add up, especially if those that overstayed have no intention of returning home! They use services and work, illegally and cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars every year. To be fair, some are self-employed and employ others and pay taxes.
It might be worth mentioning at this point that the U.S. has what is called, a 'visa waiver program' (VWP) with 38 different countries. The program, which was started in 1986 to stimulate tourism, allows citizens of the lucky 38 to come to the U.S. for business or just plain tourism without making a visa application, and they may stay here for up to 90 days. A little over half of the countries on the list are in Europe; one is in Latin America (Chile); three are in the Asia-Pacific region (Singapore, Brunei and Japan).
Those people who are not lucky enough to reside in a VWP country must appear in person at the U.S. Embassy in their home country and apply for a visa to come here. They are checked for a criminal past. Their finances are looked at and their likelihood of returning to their home country is assessed by Embassy Consular officers. It's logical that the bulk of overstayers come from non-VWP countries. In 2016, 13% of the overstayers were from Afghanistan; 11% were from Iraq. The highest rates of overstayers were from African countries like Burkina Faso and Djibouti with 25% overstaying their visas. By contrast, France and Germany had less than 1% overstayers each.
Unfortunately, the DHS cannot completely or accurately track the visa overstays because, "there is no comprehensive biometric exit system at the country’s ports of departure to capture information on non-immigrant visitors who leave the United States." Without such an exit system, the department must rely on third-party departure data from commercial carriers' passenger or shipping manifests to confirm that a visitor has left the country. However, these commercial sources sometimes provide incorrect or inaccurate departure or arrival status of visitors, the Department's own report says. The President has recently signed an Executive Order that would speed up the development of a biometric exit system.
American citizens have great passports. It's too bad that every country doesn't. While modern travel documents won't protect us from overstayers, the rest of the world is getting up to speed on incorporating security features into their passports to protect us all from forged documents by would-be terrorists.
Our U.S. passports have several security 'devices' that make our traveling easier and easier for the authorities to monitor. They are all printed at the Government Printing Office and contain about 60 different materials with 30 different security features. The one most reported on is the RFID electronic chip that contains your personal data and is located on the upper left-hand corner on the back page of your passport. These chips are controversial in that some security researchers have said they can clone the chips. The most exciting security feature is the holograms but they are rivaled by super sophisticated inks and printing. Forget about the 'old days' in the spy movies when somebody with a pen knife just pulled off a colored photo and replaced it with one of their own on an American passport.
Now what should we do about all the five million visa overstayers? It's a thorny question, but if they're caught they will be subject to deportation (that is if ICE has any time left over after tracking down all the MS-13 crazies and drug traffickers). The overstayers is a 'hidden in the shadows' demographic that doesn't get much attention because these folks are buried even deeper into the fabric of American society than their more vocal Hispanic/Latino illegal 'cousins.' Finding them will be difficult, and while they may be safe for now while all the focus is on their Hispanic brethren, their turn will come. At some point we will have to discuss their future here. We can't build walls everywhere.
Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written eight books and over 800 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org