The White House shifted its focus this week from the surge of families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrive in the United States legally and then illegally remain in the country after their visas expire.
Though President Trump has fixated on the rising numbers of Central American families claiming asylum at the southern border, he also promised during his campaign that deporting those who overstay their legal visas would be a priority for his administration.
Trump on Monday issued a presidential memo that declared visa overstay rates “unacceptably high” and calling them a “widespread problem.” On the basis of a recent Homeland Security report, he instructed federal agencies to consider action against countries that have business and tourism travelers — using the popular B1 and B2 visas — who overstay at a rate higher than 10 percent.
Twenty countries have overstay rates higher than 10 percent, according to the Homeland Security report. Except for Syria and Nigeria, these countries accounted for fewer than 1,000 overstayers each.
Trump gave the State Department four months to consult with Homeland Security officials and the attorney general to recommend sanctions, which he said could include suspending or limiting visas for those countries.
But some analysts say targeting these countries would have little impact on the total number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Using the percentage of overstays as a measure also disproportionately targets African nations — 13 of the 20 countries are in Africa — while avoiding political conflicts with larger and more powerful countries, such as China and India.
Djibouti, a small nation on the Horn of Africa, has the highest visa overstay rate — but that translates to just 180 of the 403 business and tourism travelers to the United States in 2018.
Chad’s 30.8 percent overstay rate amounted to 165 people. Yemen, with the third-highest rate, had 518 overstayers.
Just Nigeria posted a significant number of visa overstayers while also having a rate that put the African nation into Trump’s target category.
Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela and other nations also have large numbers of overstays, but their rate is lower than 10 percent because these countries send a much higher number of travelers to the United States. The DHS report says Mexico had more than 43,000 overstays — a rate of 1.5 percent — and that Canada had 88,000 overstays, at a rate of less than 1 percent. But like the list of 20 countries the DHS analyzed, the overstays reflect just travelers who arrived on airplanes or ships. Most Canadians and Mexicans who legally travel to the United States enter the country by land. DHS said data for those entries will be included in future reports.
In his order, Trump also instructed the secretaries of state and homeland security to find ways to reduce all overstays, including by student visa holders, visa waiver program participants.
More than 50 million temporary visitors entered the United States last fiscal year for business, tourism, education and other pursuits, and the DHS estimates that fewer than 2 percent stayed longer than they were permitted.
Nearly 667,000 people overstayed their visas last year, according to the DHS, though by March that had slid to 415,000. In fiscal 2017, more than 700,000 people stayed in the United States longer than they were allowed.
In the B1/B2 visa category, overstays rose slightly from about 301,000 in 2017 to 305,000 last year, for an overstay rate of 2 percent.
The Center for Migration Studies of New York, which calculates overstays in a manner different from the DHS’s — by examining data that immigrants report to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — estimates that nearly half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States overstayed their visas. Most are from Mexico, followed by India, China, Venezuela and other nations, said Robert Warren, a senior visiting fellow at the center.
Visa overstayers account for a rising share of the newly arrived undocumented population — as high as two-thirds of arrivals in the past decade — largely because illegal border crossings sank to historic lows, Warren said. That ratio could change this year as apprehensions on the southern border rise.
It is unclear how long immigrants overstay their visas, but the Pew Research Center estimated that the typical undocumented immigrant in 2016 had lived in the United States for 15 years.
Other visa overstayers eventually return home or apply for legal residency through asylum or other methods.