Nearly Half of Illegal Immigrants Overstay Visas

Many immigrants who are in the United States illegally never jumped a fence, hiked through the desert or paid anyone to help them sneak into the country. According to a recent study, 45 percent of illegal immigrants came here on a legal visa, and then overstayed that visa. NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the massive visa overstay problem and what the federal government is doing to deal with this aspect of the illegal immigrant issue.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, the government announced the arrests of more than 2,000 illegal immigrants who snuck back into the country after being deported. That word came from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

That type of operation is pretty rare and as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, there have been no operations focused on the millions of immigrants who came to this country legally, then became what are called visa overstays.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Nearly half the twelve million people illegally in the country didn't cross the desert or pay a smuggler. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, they crossed legally at a port of entry just like this one at Douglas, Arizona.

Unidentified Man: Hello, ma'am. Where do you live now?

ROBBINS: They came on a visitor, student or work visa and they stayed after it expired and disappeared inside the U.S. So many people think interior enforcement is the real challenge.

Mr. MIKE CUTLER (Formerly of INS) The interior enforcement is more than just going after people who work here illegally, although that is an important component of interior enforcement. It also means tracking down those people who failed to depart when they're supposed to.

ROBBINS: Mike Cutler is a former investigator with the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He believes visa violators pose greater security risks than illegal border crossers.

Mr. CUTLER: In fact, the 19 terrorists who attacked our country on 9/11 all entered the United States through ports of entry.

ROBBINS: At least six of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas. In 2003, the INS was split into ICE and CVP. ICE now handles interior enforcement and Cutler is now a vocal critic of the relative lack of resources it gets compared with CVP, or Customs and Border Protection.

Mr. CUTLER: It's kind of like securing your house and then giving out keys to your house to anybody walking by.

ROBBINS: The Border Patrol has about 12,000 agents and lots of technology. ICE has about half that number tracking everything from potential terrorists to counterfeit goods.

Ms. MARCY FOREMAN (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): There's certainly challenges, but we're working within the scope of the resources we have.

ROBBINS: Marcy Foreman heads all investigations for ICE. She says the agency now has a task force to find visa violators. But she says its first priority -

Ms. FOREMAN: Is national security versus those that may just be attending school here whose visas may have expired.

ROBBINS: Last year, ICE caught about 8,000 visa overstays, mostly as a byproduct of other investigations, such as using the terrorist watch list. Mike Cutler says it should be easier to track visa overstays.

Mr. CUTLER: If you send a package by FedEx or some other forwarding agency, you can tell minute by minute exactly where your package is. It doesn't seem that the technology should be all that difficult.

ROBBINS: But Marcy Foreman says with the different databases, ICE can find any overstay.

Ms. FOREMAN: Right now, we're able to track everyone who comes into the country who receives a visa.

ROBBINS: Visa holders are supposed to be tracked with the U.S. Visit Program. Using finger scans and photos, U.S. Visit processes visitors at ports of entry. But after more than two years, only a handful of ports are equipped to track exits an the system still does not fully interface with other databases.

Arizona Republican Congressman Jim Colby, who represents a border district, says visa overstays and interior enforcement in general get less attention because the media overwhelmingly focus on the border and Congress reacts to the media.

Representative JIM COLBY (Republican, Arizona): It's hard to talk about on TV. You can't show a visual of this, of people clambering over the fence, of coming through the desert. If you're talking about people who overstay their visas, it's just not a terribly - excuse the word, but - sexy kind of thing to talk about. I think you're about the first time I've ever had an interview on this with anybody.

ROBBINS: Legislation currently being debated calls for 800 more ICE investigators in the next four years. Compare that to 6,000 more Border Patrol agents in the same period.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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