Missing Burundi Robotics Team Highlights Visa System Flaws

By Preston Huennekens on July 31, 2017

From July 16-18, the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge was held in Washington, D.C. FIRST Global's mission is to "inspire science and technology leadership and innovation in young people from all nations in order to increase understanding, impress the importance of cooperation, address the world's most pressing issues, and improve quality of life for all." The global challenge is a robotics competition that pits national teams against each other, and offers international students the opportunity to see America's capital city.

This year's event was originally marred by controversy when a team of young girls from Afghanistan were twice refused visas to come to attend the event. Travel visas from Afghanistan are usually difficult to obtain, but a last-minute intervention by President Trump ensured that they would be able to travel for the competition. The group of Afghan girls were met with praise and fanfare upon their arrival to the competition, and after successfully showcasing their robot they returned to Afghanistan with no controversy, happy to have had the opportunity to exhibit their work.

Another group, however, had different plans once the conference ended.

Six teenage students from the small African country of Burundi are missing in the United States. At the time of this writing, two of them have been seen crossing the border into Canada, although police are refusing to comment further given that four others are still missing.

The team's mentor, Canesius Bindaba, went to their rooms one night to find that they had packed their bags and fled. When he contacted their families back home, he was met with bizarre responses such as "relax, everything will be okay." While this cannot be confirmed by police, Bindaba indicated that the teens likely fled the event on their own in order to remain in the United States, and that they may have even planned to do so with the help of their families back home.

All of the teens were between the ages of 16 and 18, and members of the Burundian community in the U.S. have indicated that the teens will likely try to seek asylum in the United States or in Canada. (Canada gives asylum to Burundians without a hearing.)

The case of the Burundi robotics team presents the American public with a classic case of what visa overstay looks like, and why it is a problem. If and when the four remaining teenagers are found, it will likely come out that they indeed had planned to flee the event once it was over in order to avoid returning to Burundi. This is not surprising given that the State Department has warned U.S. citizens against traveling in Burundi due to widespread political violence, civil unrest, and crime. Currently, over 400,000 people have fled Burundi as refugees to neighboring countries, whose own situations may not be much better than those facing the refugees at home.

In 2016, 204 Burundi nationals overstayed their visas and remained in the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Of the 204 overstays, Burundi nationals abused the B1/B2 (business/tourist) visa category most frequently, with 154 individuals overstaying their visas. Given that they were coming for a short-term conference, the Burundi team entered the country carrying B1/B2 visas.

There are many problems associated with individuals who stay past their visa limits. Research by the Center has shown that many people are able to abuse our tourist and non-immigrant visa system with the full intention of remaining in the United States permanently. Because they were admitted into the country on good faith that they would return to their home country, as the Afghan girls did, there is no real way of tracking the Burundi team's current whereabouts. Following their legal entry into the country, the Burundi teens were able to easily sneak out of their hotel and disappear into the city, with two of them making it as far as the Canadian border.

What happens to the remaining four teens is anyone's guess. They may be found by authorities, they may be traveling to Canada, or they may disappear into the shadowy background of the millions of people who live, work, and commute in the area. Getting to Baltimore, New York, Boston, or any other relatively large metropolitan area will not be difficult for the teens if they wish to leave the Washington area where they are being searched for. Whatever the case, they remain in the United States illegally.

All of this demonstrates how easy it is to overstay a temporary visa, and that there are really no immediate consequences for those who are determined to not return home. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners overstay their visas every year, and lawmakers do not seem particularly concerned with it. The case of the missing Burundi teens highlights just one of the many flaws in our visa system and should encourage lawmakers to undertake reform in this area of immigration policy.