America's illegal immigrants – not just by foot

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With all the focus on America's southern border – on fences, National Guard troops, and detection – one might think the only source of illegal immigrants to the US is desert-crossers from Mexico. But that's only half the picture. Literally.

A study released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that people who overstayed their visas account for as much as 45 percent – nearly half – of the unauthorized immigrants now in the US. Most of the 4.5 million to 6 million people who violated their visas were tourist or business travelers. (The total also includes 250,000 to 500,000 who overstayed a visa known as a Border Crossing Card, used for frequent visitors.)

Pew regrets having to be inexact about the estimates, but the truth is, no one knows just how many people are overstaying visas, because the federal government can't accurately count them. That's right: Credit-card companies can alert customers the world over about fraudulent purchases, yet the feds can't keep track of how many people abuse visa privileges.

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The government has tried to improve its count with an electronic entry-exit tracking program called US-VISIT, run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Originally planned as an immigration-control tool so that officials will know if a visitor has left or not, it's taken on an antiterrorist function (two of the 9/11 hijackers were in the US on expired visas). US consular offices issuing visas abroad collect scanned photos and fingerprints and check them against a database of terrorists and criminals. At port of entry, these biometrics are used to verify the visa holder's identity.

But the program is woefully behind schedule and the US Government Accountability Office has issued scathing reports on its lack of cost- effectiveness and viability. Biometric entry procedures are in place at 115 US airports, 15 seaports, and 154 land ports of entry (the latter, only for secondary inspections). Exit procedures are running at only 12 airports and two seaports.

So, while Uncle Sam may have a good idea of who's coming, he doesn't know who's going. This doesn't bode well for the Senate's plan for guest workers – who will keep tabs on them?

Like everything else in US immigration control, getting a handle on visa abusers is a matter of proper enforcement. The DHS inspector general reported in September that only 51 full-time agents were assigned to track down millions of visa overstays in 2004. The department can't even investigate half the tips it receives.

It's also a matter of proportion. Of the $1.95 billion that President Bush requested for border security last month, only $30 million is for tracking and monitoring visa violators.

Given the problems with US-VISIT and visa monitoring, the most expedient way to discourage illegal visa overstays is workplace enforcement. The Senate and House immigration bills beef up employer sanctions for hiring illegal migrants, and provide a quick employee-verification system. But employer sanctions, too, come down to the will to enforce.

Lawmakers must recognize that visa violators are just as much of a problem as illegal border-crossers. They should find the will and funds to implement the law.

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