Visa Overstays: A Lesson in Flexible Facts and Pliable Media

By Dan Cadman, February 2, 2016

On January 20, the New York Times carried this story: "Few Foreign Visitors to U.S. Overstay Visa, Federal Report Says". It states that "A little more than 1 percent of the nearly 45 million foreign visitors to the United States overstayed their work or tourist visas last year, according to a long-awaited report by the Department of Homeland Security."

Great news! Or is it? Let me "do the sums here", as they say. Wait a minute. That's about half a million people added to the illegal alien population in just a year's time.

Since when does the word "few" appropriately apply to such a huge number? Not in any rational universe, but this is, after all, the New York Times, whose objectivity flies out the window on virtually any subject touching upon immigration. (One suspects that when Ted Cruz controversially referred to "New York values", this is the kind of thing he was describing. Perhaps he should have simply said "New York Times values" or "Mayor Bill De Blasio values" — or even "Michael Bloomberg values" — and avoided disparaging the entire city.)

The timing of the report's release is no accident. DHS has put it out there in hopes of neutralizing the acid rain that is sure to pour down on them in upcoming congressional hearings having to do with overstays, as well as the visa waiver program and recent decisions to undermine the new Visa Waiver Program (VWP) restrictions on Iranian dual nationals through a liberal regimen of exemptions.

But back to that "good news" report. The public should understand clearly that it substantially undercounts the total number of overstays for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, as technologically advanced as our nation is, the federal government lags behind in many areas — including, critically, the ability to match exits to entries. We have no all-encompassing system to figure out who leaves (or doesn't), most significantly with regard to the southern land border, which accounts for a huge percentage of overall alien entries. For instance, according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, of the 362 million citizen and alien arrivals at land, air, and sea ports of entry, 242 million were at the land ports.

Second, as the DHS report notes, the overstay count has been restricted solely to nonimmigrant visitors for business or pleasure (tourism). Consequently, it doesn't reflect the substantial number of visa violators in other categories, such as foreign students and exchange visitors, of which there are nearly a million and whose growth has been fueled by nationals from China and Saudi Arabia, according to U.S. News and World Report. The former has one of the highest overall violator rates, and the latter represents a national security risk even with the best of vetting (which, as we've come to realize, the government falls short of).

Third, consider that DHS under this administration has invested almost no effort in visa, visa waiver, and foreign student compliance efforts, as they don't fall into the distorted lens of its "priority enforcement" scheme. Once individuals in these (or virtually any other nonimmigrant) categories violate their status through working or overstaying (usually both), they are pretty much home free. As John Sandweg, a former ICE director, infamously but truthfully noted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero — it's just highly unlikely to happen."

In sum, reading the New York Times story, and the official DHS "report" behind it, is like looking at an airbrushed photo of your local real estate agent — which is to say it has virtually no relationship to reality.

A more truthful, albeit disturbing, answer to the question of how many visa overstayers are in the country was given by DHS official Alan Bersin during congressional testimony earlier this month: "We don't know." (See here and here.)