Almost 500,000 foreigners who traveled legally to the U.S. last year for business or travel remained here after their visas expired.
Almost 500,000 foreigners who traveled legally to the U.S. last year for business or leisure remained here after their visas expired, according to a long-awaited government study on one of the more undertold aspects of the country’s immigration story.
The Department of Homeland Security report, first requested by Congress in 1997, shows that 1.07 percent of the nearly 45 million foreigners who entered the country legally in 2015 overstayed their visas.
The report is limited in that it contains information only from travelers using certain visas and does not include data on others, like those coming here as students or temporary workers. It also includes information only on people who arrived by air or sea, and not foreigners who came by land.
Indeed, while experts warn of drawing conclusions from the report, since it includes only one year of data and can’t be compared to anything, the numbers relating to visa overstays—a population that represents an estimated 40 percent of the roughly 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally—will likely add to the nation’s tense debate over immigration.
“This is an area where Congress for 20 years has been asking for this information, and now we have a roadmap to determine what’s the best way to improve these numbers,” said Stewart Verdery, a senior Homeland Security official during George W. Bush’s administration, in an interview with The Daily Signal.
After receiving the report they sought, members of Congress expressed frustration at a weakness in the system described by the report: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of Homeland Security, does not have the ability to obtain biometric data—such as fingerprints, facial recognition, and iris scans—on people leaving the country.
“If we do not track and enforce departures, then we have open borders. It’s as simple as that,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who questioned Homeland Security officials at a hearing Wednesday put on by the Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest. “There is no border at all if don’t enforce our visa rules.”
The study sheds light on Homeland Security’s ongoing challenge to build an “entry-exit” system that can accurately track all people coming into and leaving the country.
Foreigners who apply to enter the U.S. on a visa are interviewed and photographed and have their fingerprints taken at a consulate overseas before arriving there. But collecting biometric data on those exiting the country is not as easy.
That’s because U.S. airports do not have exclusive areas for domestic and international flights, which makes it hard for Customs officers to screen out overseas travelers and get their information.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been undergoing tests to obtain biometric exit data, including one that began last year where officers use mobile devices to collect fingerprints from passengers at the departure gate. In addition, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City debuted facial-recognition technology this week.
Verdery, who worked on the entry and exit system at Homeland Security, said the challenge is finding a cost-effective method that does not inconvenience travelers.
“The question is, where do you collect the information? At the jetway? Via a kiosk after security? During the security check? At the airline counter?” Verdery said. “Where do you put them that doesn’t inconvenience travelers and is actually effective in making sure someone has left? None of the options are particularly great. And though the biometric equipment is very mature, there is also a manpower issue.”