Visa Overstays: It's Not Just about the Numbers

By Dan Cadman on June 22, 2016

A few days ago, the Washington Post's "Federal Insider" column carried this article by Joe Davidson: "Visa overstays a security risk when 99% of foreigners leave U.S. on time?".

Davidson was keying off of a recent hearing by the House Homeland Security Committee that was examining the national security risk posed by overstays — foreigners who either enter with visas, or via the visa waiver program (VWP), and then overstay their period of authorized admission to blend into the large and amorphous pool of aliens illegally in the United States.

Contrary to the frequent but erroneous public notion that nearly all illegal aliens are border crossers, it is estimated that nearly half of the illegal aliens here originally came legally and then just stayed instead of departing when required.

Of course, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials under the Obama administration have done everything they can to obfuscate that figure. One way they've done so was by issuing a report a few months ago — the one columnist Davidson quotes — noting that the overwhelming percentage of visitors leave in a timely manner. When the report was issued, the New York Times carried a story on it, which overlooked how significant that 1 percent is when looked at as a raw number: About half a million overstays per year, give-or-take, something that aroused my ire and that of my colleague Jessica Vaughan as well.

Davidson takes a somewhat more measured approach than the Times did, because he at least acknowledges the number, but then he goes on to lend credence to those, such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who dismiss it as insignificant because it isn't worth the time, effort, or money it would take to track such individuals who don't really pose a threat anyway, at least by their lights.

Make no doubt that the numbers are important. When you deal in a volume of illegal aliens in the range of 11 or 12 million, half of whom are overstays, their presence strains the social, health, education, and safety networks of the communities and states where they reside. What's more, as Vaughan tweeted just after Davidson's column appeared, DHS (as is its wont these days) has chosen to deliberately present a false picture because that 99 percent compliance rate was calculated based on visits, not on individuals.

If an individual enters the United States to visit twice in the same year, but only decides to remain illegally and find work on the second visit, we are left with the false impression that the violator rate is significantly lower than it truly is. And yes, many people do visit the United States more than once in a year, and only after they have gotten the lay of the land from prior visits do they decide to violate the conditions of their admission.

The numbers are important, and that DHS felt the need to deliberately skew them to make them appear less damaging shows that they think so, too, but of course it isn't only about the numbers. Jackson Lee and her cohorts have clearly forgotten what a mere 19 visa violating miscreants were able to accomplish on September 11, 2001.

Our most recent proof of the damage, real or potential, that even a single immigration overstay can cause came in the arrest of a British overstay, Michael Steven Sandford, who was taken into custody after trying to wrest a gun from a police officer in order to shoot presidential candidate and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas. News accounts tell us he was homeless and had been sleeping in his car for months before mounting his failed attempt.

I'm sure there are some hypocrites out there who will try to excuse Sandford's actions by saying that it is an example of Trump reaping what he's sown. These self-same hypocrites are probably also among those who have blamed anything and everything but Islamic extremism for the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, and who would scream bloody murder if someone had made such an attempt, however feeble and inept, on either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. So I dismiss that kind of hypocrisy out of hand, although I suspect it's going on, sotto voce, in any number of places.

But the larger questions — about how to deal with the issue of overstays and whether the federal government can prove itself competent enough to craft an exit system to at least know who is violating the law — loom unanswered, and they are only a small part of the large and at present unregulated and unenforced immigration system over whose decline Barack Obama has presided.

If there are any liberals or progressives so truly clueless that they wonder how Trump has managed to gain such traction with the electorate, just keep on trying to brush this issue out the door or under the rug, or to shove it into the back closet. Demand for real solutions to the nation's immigration problems are just going to keep forcing their way back into the public consciousness, whether or not he wins the election, until the clamor can no longer be delayed or denied. It's time to take off the rose-colored spectacles.