Some 5.5 million immigrants this century came to the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas, according to a new report Wednesday that suggests President Trump’s focus on the border may be missing a massive part of the immigration problem.
The Center for Migration Studies, based in New York, says 410,000 visa overstays arrived in 2016, or nearly double the 210,000 migrants who jumped the border and managed to sneak into the U.S. that year.
And while the border has heavily Mexican and Central American migration, the visa overstays come from all over, with Asia the top sending region, followed by South America, according to the think tank’s figures.
Border-jumpers used to far outstrip overstays, with some 945,000 people sneaking into the country in 2000, versus 445,000 overstays that year. But the number of new immigrants from illegal border crossings dropped and by the end of the last decade overstays were higher on an annual basis.
Visa overstays have long been one of the more complicated parts of illegal immigration.
Unlike border jumpers, those arriving on visitors’ passes have undergone some screening and presented identification, meaning the government has some idea who they are and had a chance to vet them.
But the Department of Homeland Security has never put much of a priority on trying to track down overstays to pressure them to go home, leaving millions remaining in the U.S.
Of the 5.5 million who arrived and overstayed from 2000 to 2016, 31% eventually went home or managed to earn some legal status in the U.S. But that left 3.8 million who were still in the country in 2016 without legal status, the Center for Migration Studies calculated.
A border wall, Mr. Trump’s immigration focus for much of last year, would have no effect on those migrants. Neither would his new calls for closing the border or demanding Mexico do more to stop the surge of people crossing its territory en route to the U.S.
Mr. Trump on Monday seemed to take note of the visa overstay problem, signing a memo asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security to report back on new steps that could be taken to tackle the issue.
One option would be to ban entry of people from countries with high overstay rates. Another would be to require visitors to pay “admission bonds” that would serve as an incentive for them to leave.
Donald Kerwin, CMS’s executive director, said it may make more sense to study what worked on Mexico, Korea or Poland, each of which saw visa overstays plummet dramatically over the decade.
“The measures being considered to reduce overstays should reflect these facts,” Mr. Kerwin said.
Trump critics said the White House’s plans would particularly strike at visitors from some African nations, which have the worst overstay rate.
Djibouti recorded an overstay rate of nearly 44% in 2018, while Eritrea came in at 24%, Chad at 30% and Angola at 15%, according to Homeland Security statistics.
Douglas Rivlin, communications director at America’s Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group, said the White House’s attempted crackdown is part of an “underlying white nationalist” scheme.
Mr. Rivlin summed the message up as: “If your country has ever won a medal at the Winter Olympics, you can apply to come here, and the rest of the world, just keep out.”
While jumping the border is a crime, overstaying a visa does not carry a criminal penalty. The punishment, if someone is actually caught, is deportation and a bar on reentering the U.S. for some period of time.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made major news this year when officers arrested Atlanta-area rapper Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, whose stage name is 21 Savage, for having overstayed a visa.
ICE said federal agents had targeted someone else in the car they stopped, but when they encountered Savage and determined he had a felony history, ICE moved to take him into custody for the immigration violation.
The rapper was released on an immigration bond the week after his arrest and is awaiting his hearing. Since he’s not being detained, and since judges are stretched by the recent surge of migrants at the border, it could be years before his case is decided.