The White House shifted its focus this week from the surge of families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrive in the United States legally and then illegally remain in the country after their visas expire.
Though President Donald Trump has fixated on the rising numbers of Central American families claiming asylum at the southern border, he also promised during his campaign that deporting those who overstay their legal visas would be a top priority for his administration.
Trump on Monday issued a presidential memo declaring that visa overstay rates are “unacceptably high,” calling it a “widespread problem.” He instructed federal agencies to consider action against countries that have business and tourism travelers – using the popular B1 and B2 visas – overstay at a rate higher than 10%, based on a new Homeland Security report.
Twenty countries have overstay rates higher than 10%, according to the Homeland Security report. Except for Syria and Nigeria, these countries accounted for fewer than 1,000 overstayers each.
Trump gave the State Department four months to consult with Homeland Security officials and Attorney General William Barr to recommend sanctions, which he said could include suspending or limiting visas for those countries.
But some analysts say targeting these countries would have little impact on the total number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Using the percentage of overstays as a measure also disproportionately targets African nations – 13 of the 20 countries are in that continent – while avoiding political conflicts with large, powerful countries, such as China and India.
Djibouti, a small nation on the Horn of Africa, has the highest visa overstay rate – but that translates into 180 of the 403 business and tourism travelers to the United States last year.
Chad’s 30.8% overstay rate amounted to 165 people. Yemen, with the third-highest rate, had 518 overstayers.
Only Nigeria posted a significant number of visa overstayers while also having a rate that put the African nation into Trump’s target category.
Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, and other nations also have large numbers of overstays, but their rate is lower than 10% because many more travelers come from these countries. The DHS report says Mexico had more than 43,000 overstays – a rate of 1.5% – and that Canada had 88,000 overstays, at a rate of less than 1%. But like the list of 20 countries the DHS analyzed, the overstays reflect just travelers who arrived on airplanes or ships. Most Canadians and Mexicans who travel to the United States enter the country by land. The DHS said data for those entries will be included in future reports.
In his order, Trump also instructed the secretaries of state and homeland security to find ways to lower all overstays, including student visaholders, visa waiver program participants and others.
More than 50 million temporary visitors entered the United States last fiscal year for business, tourism, education and other pursuits, and DHS estimates that less than 2% stayed longer than they were permitted.
Nearly 667,000 people overstayed their visas last year, according to the DHS, though by March that slid to 415,000. In fiscal 2017, more than 700,000 people stayed in the United States longer than they were allowed.
In the B1/B2 visa category, overstays rose slightly from about 301,000 in 2017 to 305,000 last year, for an overstay rate of 2%.
The Center for Migration Studies of New York, which calculates overstays in a different manner than the DHS – by examining data immigrants report to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – estimates that nearly half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States overstayed their visas. Most are from Mexico, which is followed by India, China, Venezuela, and other nations, said Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the center.
Visa overstayers account for a rising share of the newly arrived undocumented population – as high as two thirds of arrivals during the past decade – largely because illegal border crossings sank to historic lows, Warren said. That ratio could change this year as apprehensions on the southern border rise.
It is unclear how long immigrants overstay their visas, but the Pew Research Center estimated that the typical undocumented immigrant in 2016 had lived in the United States for 15 years.
Other visa over stayers eventually return home or apply for legal residency through asylum or other methods.
Maria Sacchetti and Kevin Uhrmacher