Immigrants will stay after visas expire, report says
McClatchy Newspapers
September 30, 2005

WASHINGTON - Nearly 159,000 immigrants whose visas will expire in the next five years will continue working illegally in the United States, federal investigators say.

That would cost the government money in unjustified Social Security payments. It would aggravate the overall illegal immigration burden, which Congress is now closer to confronting again. And it could threaten homeland security, investigators warn.

"Unauthorized work by immigrants ... weakens Social Security numbers' integrity and may require that the agency pay future benefits to these individuals," Social Security investigators note in their new report. Moreover, "they may obtain employment in sensitive areas."

But the latest evidence about so-called "visa overstay" immigrants does more than fuel congressional action. Unintentionally, Social Security's investigators also reveal one secret behind the numbers flying around the immigration debate:

There may be less to them than meets the eye.

While 794,678 non-immigrant foreigners were granted Social Security numbers in 2000, only 275 were sampled for the latest study by the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General.

Investigators then identified 11 immigrants who had kept working after their visas expired. From this, the investigators in their new report extrapolated to reach the eye-catching 159,000 number.

"Generalizing from a sub-sample of 11 is a risky enterprise," University of California at Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain cautioned. "You have to take it as a guess."

Still, while some question the social science, there's no question that visa overstays are a serious problem that's often overlooked amid the hubbub over illegal border crossings. An estimated 2.3 million foreigners now living in the United States have overstayed their visas, the Homeland Security Department estimates.

"It is extremely easy for someone to get lost here if they want to," noted Don Riding, officer-in-charge of the Fresno, Calif., office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Riding also noted that, as a rule, many enjoy better backgrounds - and are therefore more likely to land a good job - than those who cross the border illegally. "Generally speaking, the visa-overstays keep a low profile. Because they are better educated, they have a better chance of speaking English ... and have more disposable income," he said.

Currently, the inspector general's office noted, the Social Security Administration "has no specific role in immigration laws and enforcement." That could change, if officials follow recommendations to share more of their information with law enforcement and homeland security agencies.

White House officials have met with members of Congress to hash out immigration proposals. Tougher enforcement is bound to be part of the package; potentially, this could include more information-sharing among agencies.

To come up with their estimates, federal investigators first pulled the names of all non-immigrant foreigners granted a Social Security number. They took a random sample of 275 and used Homeland Security Department records to determine whose visa had expired. They then matched this with Social Security records to see who was still reporting earnings.

The 11 visa-overstay immigrants who kept working amounted to 4 percent of the sample population of 275. Four percent of the 798,000 foreigners granted a visa comes to 31,920. Multiplying that over five years, by the government's calculations, adds up to the 159,600 estimate.