The main focus surrounding the immigration debate has centered on the border, as agents try to grapple with the record number of migrants trying to cross into the United States. But, there’s another problem taking a toll on the immigration system — visa overstays.
“I mean, this is probably the most important issue that we're not talking about right now when we talk about, you know, immigration, migration, unauthorized foreign nationals in the United States,” Andrew Arthur, resident fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies told ABC15.
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, between 1-2% of nonimmigrant admissions result in an overstay each year, representing about 650,000 to 850,000 overstays annually for the fiscal years between 2016 and 2020.
“In fiscal year 2022, about 3.7% of all the aliens who entered the United States, what we call non-immigrants — it's with temporary visas, student visas, business visas — didn't leave or didn't leave when they were supposed to,” Arthur said, citing the latest data released in June from the Department of Homeland Security.
That same year, about 11 million unauthorized people were living in the United States, approximately 40% of which were visa overstays.
Roughly 98,000 visitors who entered through the Visa Waiver Program, which allows short-term stay without a visa from low-risk countries, were overstayed in 2022, with Spain being the biggest culprit of 5.6% of travelers.
When it comes to non-VWP countries, Venezuela and Mexico had the highest number of people who overstayed their visas at approximately 173,000 and 124,000 respectively, according to the DHS report.
“Congress ever since the '90s has been pushing the then I.N.S. [Immigration and Naturalization Service], now DHS, to institute what we call an entry-exit visa program so that we can verify the departure of everybody from the United States,” Arthur said. “We do a good job at the airports. We don't do a very good job at the land borders.”
According to the Congressional Service Report, the U.S. port of entries weren’t made with exit processing in mind, and while the entry system has been equipped with biometric components, the exit system is still waiting to be updated.
However, DHS has made significant progress tracking visa overstays, particularly after 9/11 when it was discovered several of the hijackers had overstayed their visas.
“We have completely overhauled our national security and vetting apparatus or surveillance operations worldwide and funneled that all into the immigration vetting process in a way that makes those types of failures less viable,” David Bier, Associate Director of Immigration Studies at the CATO Institute told ABC15.
While Bier acknowledges visa overstays are a problem, he also adds that the majority of people go back home.
“There are people who overstay, but the vast majority of the people who overstay end up leaving the country afterwards. They're not coming to stay permanently," Bier said. “Maybe they were a student and, they stopped going to school and they went off and, you know, explored the United States and then they went home or they're a tourist and they stayed beyond their stay, but then they left afterwards.”
However, the Congressional report underscored the frustration of some members of Congress for the incomplete entry/exit system and the inability to identify all overstays, particularly those coming from land port of entries.
While the border will likely remain in the crosshairs, Andrew believes as the 2024 election ramps up, the issue of visa overstays will start to surface.
“Given the scale of the crisis at the southwest border, this one has largely been ignored. I think that, you know, as time goes on, particularly as we're facing another election, this one's going to show back up on the on the radar.”