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Millions overstay legal visas while U.S. focuses on illegals

Published on: 04/03/06
As the debate over the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States continues in the Senate, a large group is getting overlooked: people who enter on legal visas and then never leave.

Known as visa overstays, these visitors make up between a third and a half of the illegal immigrants in this country, according to government reports — between 4 million and 6 million people.

The Senate is focusing on stepping up enforcement along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border and establishing a guest worker program. But those measures don't address visa overstays, critics say.

"Even if you succeed at the border, you're only catching 60 percent of the problem. I don't think that within the Congress the thinking is broad enough," said Deborah Meyers, senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that compared immigration proposals in Congress.

Meyers and others say overstays are a matter of national security: At least three of the terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks overstayed their visas.

Many in Congress, however, believe the border is the first priority.

That is "by far and away" the largest component of the illegal immigration problem, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said. The current system for keeping up with tourist and student visas lacks accountability, he said, but securing the border can help that.

"If we secure the border, I'm sure other resources could then be turned and focused on those that violate their visas," Isakson said.

George Grayson, a College of William and Mary government professor who has studied immigration, suggested why visa overstays don't get attention.

"There's drama at the border," he said. "Visa overstays is a yawn."

The Department of Homeland Security can command attention and dollars by focusing on the place where the immigration problem is starkest, Grayson said. And because immigration enforcers depend on Congress for their budget, they set their priorities according to what legislators care most about.

Of three main agencies that deal with immigration, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in charge of catching those who overstay their visas, has about 5,500 agents nationwide. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which secures the nation's ports and borders, has 42,000 employees, including 10,143 U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to the Mexican border. A Senate bill approved by the Judiciary Committee this week would add 13,000 more Border Patrol agents.

Temporary entries

In the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30, 2004, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, there were nearly 31 million temporary entries by foreigners into the United States. That included more than 5 million temporary visas granted to tourists, students, businesspeople, dependents of foreign workers and others. Some of those visitors entered and left the United States repeated times during the year. Visitors from countries that don't require visas also made nearly 16 million entries.

Half of all legal visitors in 2004 were from the United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan and Germany, Meyers said.

Carolina Colin-Antonini, adjunct professor at Georgia State University and an immigration attorney, said she thinks the reason the border gets more interest is that many of the visa overstays come from Asia and Europe and are more affluent and better educated people with whom Americans are culturally and economically in tune.

"This is an ethnic and racial issue as other immigration issues have been," said Colin-Antonini, who is Venezuelan-born and a naturalized U.S. citizen. "When voters think of immigrants, they don't think of the Canadian guy or the fellow at the computer. They think of the brown laborer waiting at the corner."

A Canadian's story

Brett Rutherford, 32, knows how easy it is to stay in the United States undetected.

A Canadian computer technician, he said he took a train to Springfield, Ill., in December 1996 to visit a woman. Canadians don't need a visa, but they are allowed to stay only six months unless they ask to remain longer.

Rutherford stayed for almost a decade, got engaged, married, bought a house, divorced and held several jobs, the last for a company that kept track of data on Illinois' Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

Rutherford said he tried to get legal status but could not get any help from the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I talked to 10 different people and got 15 different stories," Rutherford said.

He never made a secret of his Canadian origins, he said, even taping a Canadian flag to his computer terminal. His employers never asked for proof that he could work in the United States.

He said they merely told him that if he decided to go home to Canada, which he did at least once, he should tell U.S. border officials on his return that he was just visiting the United States.

Last June, Rutherford said, he returned to Canada to visit his ill mother. When he tried to return, U.S. border officials denied him entry.

Rutherford's story would not surprise many who want stricter limits on immigration.

"This is a huge issue, and we're very discouraged and upset by what's going on in Congress," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies for stricter controls. "I haven't seen them get exorcised about visa overstays."

Stein said the Bush administration, and many in Congress, don't want to put any additional burdens on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Enforcing the law and removing illegal immigrants would cut into their workforce and increase their costs, he said.

"Since business is the primary culprit, they need to be the primary target of any so-called reform," Stein said. "Just putting more people on the border is not going to do it."

Exit tracking

After 9/11, immigration officials developed a high-tech system using fingerprints and photographs to track people entering through U.S. airports, seaports and land borders.

US-VISIT has been tracking entrances in most locations since January 2004. Exit tracking is now being tested at two seaports and 12 airports, including Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Before returning home, a visitor checks out at an ATM-style machine that scans a person's passport and takes a fingerprint and a photo. The traveler then gets a receipt to present at the gate. That information is not checked now because the program is still being tested.

If US-VISIT is implemented, the information could be verified against entry records, confirming that someone who came into the country left. Anyone shown as having entered, but not leaving within a certain period of time would become an overstay, said US-VISIT Director Jim Williams.

A Compliance Enforcement Unit was created in June 2003 to go after visa violators. The office acts as a central clearinghouse, gathering leads from US-VISIT and two other databases that track foreign students and visitors of special concern. Agents investigate and distribute the names of suspects to 176 ICE field offices for follow-up, said Dean Boyd, ICE spokesman in Washington.

In Atlanta, ICE chief Kenneth Smith says investigators in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina receive information from CEU every day and he has people working "full time" on visa overstays, though he would not reveal the number of agents

Since its creation, CEU efforts have led to about 2,000 arrests of visitors who overstayed their visas and of other violators, such as students who worked without permission.

Boyd said limited resources prevent more arrests.

But a Homeland Security Inspector General's report in October criticized the unit's performance, noting it took too long to complete cases.

It said the unit's 18 members, with contract worker help, investigated only 68 percent of more than 300,000 leads received between January 2004 and January 2005. Those investigations led to only 671 apprehensions.

Boyd said the unit was never meant to go after run-of-the-mill visa overstays without a criminal record. It targets the most dangerous offenders, such as those who commit crimes after entering the country.

"We may have a large population of visa violators, but is it wise to go out and, without prioritizing, try to round them all up?" Boyd asked. "Our investigators are charged with enforcing more than 400 different statutes."