The Real Immigration Crisis: People Overstaying Their Visas
Still, none of this has translated into visa overstays becoming a source of anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigration, especially in the U.S. and Europe, has become shorthand for the perceived uncontrolled flow of immigrants across land borders. In the U.S., Donald Trump has railed against “Mexicans” (though illegal border crossings by Mexican nationals are at multi-decade lows) and the thousands of people from Central America’s Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) who are seeking asylum. In Europe, the populist backlash to the entry of more than 1 million people from Syria and elsewhere in 2014 and 2015 resulted in even mainstream parties espousing a more restrictionist immigration policy.
“It’s right out there in the news, and you can see people” crossing borders, Warren told me. “With the overstayers, people will be tourists and they’ll come here, and they’ll either join relatives or they’ll join people they know, and they’ll get a job, and they’re not visible.”
The practice of pointing to a visible facet of a social problem—such as immigrants massing at a border—is hardly isolated when it comes to policy making. It is far easier to call for gun control or restricting the sale of violent video games after a mass shooting than to formulate more complex and coherent policies that might be more effective.
That could be changing, however, at least in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Trump administration, which has restricted its public statements, if not its actual policies, to illegal border crossings, now might be turning its attention to overstayers. Its specific focus may be the B1 and B2 visas, which are awarded to people visiting the country on business and tourism, respectively. Under the reported plan, the U.S. would put the nations with the highest overstay rates, based on Department of Homeland Security data—Chad, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone—“on notice,” and tell them that unless the numbers change, their citizens would find it harder, maybe even impossible, to obtain visas.
In the U.S., visa overstays have exceeded illegal border crossings in each of the past seven years. In 2016, about 515,000 people arrived in the United States illegally, the Center for Migration Studies said in a report. Of these, 320,000, more than three-fifths, overstayed their visas, and the rest crossed a land border illegally. But tracking people who enter the U.S. legally until they leave is difficult. The Department of Homeland Security conducted its own analysis for fiscal year 2017, and its estimate was 702,000 overstayers. (To be clear, that number is a small fraction, 1.33 percent, of the more than 50 million people who arrive in the U.S. each year on valid visas.)