A harder look at visa overstayers
Since Sept. 11, calls have increased to keep closer tabs on visa holders.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.