By KENT JACKSON (Staff Writer)
Published: July 10, 2013

ERIC CONOVER/Staff Photographer U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, speaks at a luncheon in April at Top of the 80's restaurant in Sugarloaf Township.

Foreigners who overstay visas in the United States face prison terms and fines through a bill that U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, introduced Tuesday to reduce illegal immigration.

Barletta said 40 percent of the people living in the country illegally arrived on visas, and they currently receive mild civil penalties if caught after their visas expire.

"They disappear and don't go home, and we have no way of tracking them," Barletta said during a conference call when he introduced the visa expiration bill and a bill requiring a study of a 1986 immigration law.

His visa bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to take fingerprints of foreigners from all nations except Mexico and Canada as they leave the country. Because people are fingerprinted upon arrival, the system would indicate who overstayed a visa, Barletta said.

Fingerprints also would deter people from entering the country under fake identities, a ploy that Barletta noticed immigrants using while he was mayor of Hazleton.

"They can only be that person one time. They cannot enter the country as that person again" after their identity is paired with fingerprints, he said.

People who overstay a visa would face a year in jail, a $10,000 fine and a five-year ban on returning to the United States. Penalties rise to five years in jail, $15,000 in fines and a lifetime ban for a second offense.

Currently, people who overstay face no criminal penalties but are banned from re-entering the United States for less than one year, Barletta said.

Michelle Mittelstadt, spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington, said a 1996 law says people who overstay a visa for 180 to 365 days can be banned from returning to the country for three years. Overstaying a visa by a year or more can result in a 10-year ban, she said by email.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2006 that as many as 45 percent of unauthorized immigrants overstayed visas while the remainder sneaked into the country.

In a recent paper, demographers Robert and John Warren estimate that 40.8 percent of people in the country illegally overstayed visas. The number of people overstaying visas dropped 73 percent between 2000 and 2009. Overstays declined fastest in the three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2000, the number overstaying visas hit 705,000, but that figure dropped to 190,000 in 2009, the Warrens found.

Barletta's second bill asks the Government Accounting Office to study how the 1986 immigration law affected American jobs and security.

As in 1986, a bill passed by the Senate last month offers unauthorized immigrants a way to become citizens, a provision that Barletta opposes and considers amnesty.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he won't bring the Senate bill to a vote until half of his party's delegation supports it.

Barletta said before the House acts on immigration the members should review the results of the 1986 law.

President Ronald Reagan called the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act a one-time fix for the 2.7 million immigrants who gained legal status through the law. Since then, however, the estimate of immigrants in the country illegally has risen to 11 million.

One person, Mahmud Abouhalima, later convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, received permission to stay in the country through the 1986 law.

Abouhalima received authorization to remain as an agricultural worker, but he actually drove a taxi in New York City.

"The only thing he planted was a bomb," Barletta said.

Immigration policy should protect American lives and jobs, and Barletta thinks the Senate bill fails by both measures.

"So why would we do this?" he asked.

Moreover, he said the Affordable Health Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, gives employers an incentive to hire immigrants instead of citizens. While the act fines businesses with more than 50 employees for failing to provide health insurance to employees - a provision the Obama administration delayed from taking effect for one year - unauthorized immigrants are exempt, Barletta said.

Several organizations have studied the impacts of the 1986 law, although not with the focus on security, wages and cost of illegal immigration on social programs that Barletta suggests.

In a 2005 study of lessons learned from the 1986 law, the MPI said sanctions against employers who hired unauthorized immigrants never were enforced aggressively and the false documents proliferated since then. The study pointed out that the 1986 act split families, leaving some members with legal immigration status and some without that status.

Failure to pay for administrative costs up front led the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services to borrow money and lay off workers before a crush of people applied for legal status. While the INS checked criminal backgrounds of people seeking temporary status, the background checks were more lax for temporary residents seeking permanent status, the report said.

Applications of farm workers seeking to prove that they worked in the country for required lengths of time were suspected of containing false documents that the INS had little capacity to investigate, the study found.

Compared with 1986, the backlog of people waiting to immigrate has grown from a small number to 1.5 million. The share of immigrants who work in agriculture has declined. But employment opportunities still drive people to become immigrants, the study said.