Needless Complexities in the Visa System Hinder Migration Management

By David North on October 13, 2009

One of the major sources of illegal immigration is the flow of persons into the U.S. with valid temporary visas who later (often quickly) drop out of legal status. Tourists (usually on B-1 visas) and foreign students (on either F-1 or J-1 visas) produce most of this type of illegal immigrants, the visa-abusers, often called visa-overstayers.

One of the reasons it is hard to control these flows relates to the proliferation of different visa classes (mostly demanded by lobbyists of one kind or another). Every time a new visa class is created by Congress, everyone handling visas -- either in our overseas embassies or at our ports of entry -- has to learn an additional set of rules regarding who may, and who may not, obtain and/or use this visa.

The current system is wildly complicated, as the following listing of visas illustrates:

A-1, A-2, A-3; B-1, B-2; C-1, C-2, C-3; E-1, E-2, E-3; F-1, F-2, F-3; G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, G-5, GT; H-1B, H-1-B1; H-1C, H-2A, H-2B, H-3, H-4; I-1; J-1, J-2; K-1, K-2, K-3, K-4; L-1, L-2; M-1, M-2, M-3; N-1, N-2, N-3, N-4, N-5, N-6, N-7; O-1, O-2, O-3; P-1, P-2, P-3, P-4; Q-1; R-1, R-2; S-1; T-1, T-2, T-3, T-4, TD, TN; V-1, V-2, V-3; WB, WT.

That listing, from Wikipedia, has a total of 69 subclasses organized around 21 larger classes identified by letters of the alphabet. The system is hard to follow because of differing definitions by different agencies; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose staff at the ports of entry examine (if briefly) these documents has a different list of 69 subclasses organized around 20 letter classes; while the State Department has a third list of 29 subclasses (including many merged ones) and 24 letters. Each of the two longer lists has categories that the other longer list ignores (or defines away).

To give an example of the usual complexity of the system -- and a contrast to it -- let's look at the visas available to diplomats and international organization employees on one hand, and international journalists on the other.

There are three classes of diplomatic visas, with A-1 being for ambassadors and other ranking people and their families, A-2, for lesser diplomats and their families, and A-3, for the servants of the first two classes. Then there are five classes (G-1 through G-5) for people working for international organizations, their families, and their servants. Then there are seven N classes for people connected with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Finally, DHS -- but not Wikipedia -- recognizes two more N class nonimmigrants, N-8 (parents of international organization special immigrants) and N-9, children of the same people. That's 17 different categories for various kinds of diplomats and international organization employees, and their dependents.

Happily, foreign journalists, their families, and their servants are all lumped together in class I-1.

Some of these categories are rarely used. For example, statistics from the State Department's Visa Office show that there was no usage, it is sad to say, in the years 2004-2008 of the S-1 visa for "informants possessing information on Criminal Activity or Terrorism." Similarly, there is a special visa category (M-3) for people living in border regions of Canada or Mexico who want to attend, as commuters, vocational training schools, such as in hairdressing, in the U.S. That category had three users in 2007 and none in 2008.

There are a huge number of nonimmigrant visas issued annually; the total, according to the Visa Office, went from a little over 5,000,000 in 2004 to more than 6,600,000 in 2008.

Unless the business of issuing visas is to become a rubber-stamp activity, it would be helpful to severely condense and streamline the visa categories available to potential visitors to this country.

(On this topic, also see "Shortcuts to Immigration: The 'Temporary' Visa Program Is Broken" by my colleague Jessica Vaughan.)