Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the US overstay their visas, some of them indefinitely.
It’s a category of illegal immigration that is seldom mentioned by Donald Trump, who has mostly focused on people who enter the country between ports of entry, not through airports. Yet the number of “overstays” is almost two times as large. By the end of fiscal 2017, there were about 600,000 people suspected to still be in the US after their permission to stay had expired, according to a new report (pdf) from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That year, the US Border Patrol apprehended (pdf) a little more than 310,000 immigrants trying to enter the US.
Over-stayers include pretty much anyone traveling to the US who doesn’t have an immigrant visa: temporary workers and their families, investors, students, tourists, and people on business. Students were the group most likely to overstay their visas in fiscal 2017, according to the data. Visitors from countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) were the least likely to overstay. These are the visitors that DHS suspected were still in the country past their permit that year:
The country with the highest overstay rate is Djibouti: out of the 1,000 Djiboutians who should have left, 416 were still suspected to be in the country, according to the fiscal 2017 report.
The country with the largest number of people who stayed past their allowed time was Canada (with roughly 92,000 citizens suspected to be in the country illegally,) followed by Mexico (with about 48,000.) Those numbers are likely actually higher, since the data don’t include travelers who enter the US by land, as many Canadians and Mexicans do.
DHS has been testing several methods for prodding visitors to leave. One is to warn travelers from countries in the Visa Waiver Program via email that they’ve stayed past their welcome. More recently, DHS has added friendly reminders, which arrive before the travelers’ date to leave is up.
The government is also pushing Visa Waiver Program countries with particularly high overstay rates—of 2% or above—to encourage their citizens to follow the rules. (DHS asked Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and San Marino to do that in fiscal 2016, for example.)
To be sure, many over-stayers eventually go home. The number of people suspected to have overstayed their visas, 600,000 at the end of fiscal 2017, dropped to 420,000 by May 2018. The latest data set suggests the problem is improving. The number of overstays is down from the end of fiscal year 2016, by about 30,000 (pdf.)
But the US doesn’t have a good way to keep track of who leaves and who stays, and the most promising technique for preventing people from overstaying is to develop one. DHS has been experimenting with facial recognition technology at gates in some airports; it believes that effort could be scaled up, it said in its report.
That’s unlikely to happen at land ports of entry anytime soon, though, due to what DHS calls “major physical, logistical, and operational obstacles involved with electronically collecting an individual’s biographic and biometric data.”