A harder look at visa overstayers
Since Sept. 11, calls have increased to keep closer tabs on visa holders.
NEW YORK — Let's call her Marissa. She has wavy hair in a bob and dark eyes that are quick to smile. A Palestinian from Israel fluent in four languages, she earned a graduate degree in Moscow.
She's also an illegal immigrant. Marisa - and almost half of the estimated 9 million illegal aliens in this country - has overstayed her visa. She tried to find an employer to sponsor her so she could earn a green card, but time ran out. "No one wants to be illegal," she says. "We want to work hard. We want to live happily. That's why I'm here."
The Sept. 11 attacks have shed new light on the extent to which the American immigration system is broken. While all 19 alleged hijackers entered the nation legally, two had overstayed their visas.
It's estimated that each year more than 100,000 legal visitors decide to stay. The majority are like Marissa. In their desire for a better life, they are taking advantage of what's become the easiest, albeit illegal way, of grasping the American dream.
"The INS has always been so overwhelmed that visa overstayers never received much attention," says Nestor Rodriguez, an immigration expert at the University of Houston. "Now, post-Sept. 11, there are new and present issues of national security. The game has changed."
Over the past 30 years, the practice of visa overstaying has grown into the method of choice for millions of migrants from all over the world. And the US Congress and Immigration and Naturalization Service have actually made it fairly easy to do so: Once a foreigner is in this country, the INS has no effective way to track where they are or whether they leave when they are supposed to.
And while Marissa doesn't like to be illegal, she's also not particularly worried about getting caught. Experts say she's not alone. "We have no real idea of how many visa overstayers there are," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "We certainly don't know who they are or where they are."
In general, illegal immigrants in this country are considered a "self-selected" group of hard-working, entrepreneurial people willing to risk jail, and sometimes their lives, to better themselves.
But like Marissa, visa overstayers also tend to be more educated than other illegal immigrants. One reason: To get a tourist visa, a person has to show they have substantial ties to their home country - in the form of a job, school, or family. And most of these people already have enough money to fly into the country.
"As a class, they're educated, skilled, and innovative. They're willing to take jobs Americans won't," says Allan Wernick, chairman of the Citizenship and Immigration Project at the City University of New York. "They're a tremendous boost to the economy."
But as opponents of illegal immigration note, they did cheat to get here. Their first interaction with the US government was to lie about their intention to return home. As a result, they skipped over the millions of foreigners who sometimes wait years to immigrate here legally.
"You undermine the whole principle that the law matters," says Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington. "You're telling anyone who patiently waits in line that they're a sucker."
Since Sept. 11, the INS has increased scrutiny of people applying for visas, particularly among Middle Eastern men. But overall, the system remains substantially unchanged.
Back in 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the immigration service to set up a rigorous system to track when a foreigner enters and leaves the country to help curb visa overstays. It's referred to as "controlled departure" or an "entry/exit system." But after border towns objected, voicing concern about massive delays and disrupted commerce, Congress twice postponed implementation.
After Sept. 11, the House again passed a bill calling for a controlled-departure system. The Senate version is pending.
"What it would do is turn the entry/exit system into what it should be," says Mr. Krikorian. "Foreign visitors would have ID cards that they would swipe on the way in and swipe on the way out. It would make the system more viable."
But critics note such a system could cost tens of billions of dollars to implement properly. And it may do little to increase national security. They contend that with an estimated 31 million temporary visits to the US each year, looking for a terrorist at entry/exit points is a "needle in a haystack" approach.
Indeed, over the past decade, terrorists have taken advantage of just about every way to enter the country, legal and illegal.
Then there's the question of what the INS would do even it if could easily identify visa overstayers. "What are you going to do? Send the local cops after them? The INS and the FBI certainly don't have the resources to go after them," says Mr. Wernick. "It's not a cost-effective way to control terrorism. Those billions would be better spent on intelligence."
Marissa understands the moral and legal questions surrounding her illegal status. And since she's come, she's encountered the abuses many illegals face. She's been overworked, underpaid, and has no benefits or job security. "I'm so tired of being illegal, but I'm also desperate to start a new life here," she says. "I don't think most Americans understand just how lucky they are and how difficult it is other places."
Some immigration experts say the only way to start bringing the system under control is to grant amnesty to many of the people who are already here. But the bottom line, they say, is tightening up the borders.
"It's a dilemma. These do tend to be hard-working and entrepreneurial people. But we're being inundated with such people looking for economic betterment," says Austin Fragoman, one of the nation's leading immigration lawyers. "From a public-policy standpoint, we have to regulate this. Otherwise, we might as well take the walls down and let the world redistribute itself."