Half of illegal immigrants got to the USA on legal visas: why they cannot be found and deported
US President Donald Trump focused on preventing illegal crossings of the southern border. But in fact, almost half of those who are illegally in the country entered it with completely legal visas and stayed after the visa expired. Calculating the exact number of such illegal immigrants is very difficult.
Process engineer Eddie O lost his job during the financial crisis that swept South Korea in 1998. With no prospects, he collected all his savings to pay for his family flights to California. He told the US Embassy that he was going on vacation with his relatives. Family issued six-month American visas, says New York Times.
The O family headed to Sunnyvale, a middle-class town in the Silicon Valley of California, where a relative had already rented a small apartment for them: 9 people squeezed into 2 rooms. Oh found a job painting the house, his wife became a waitress, and the children, 11-year-old Eli and 9-year-old Sue, went to school.
“We were constantly in debt. We struggled to pay the rent, ”said Eli O, who grew up to be an emergency nurse at Stanford University. "Nobody ever thought we were illegal here because we didn't fit that stereotype."
They are hardly alone. The O family's detour to the United States is part of one of America's least widely known immigration stories.
Around 350 000 travelers arrive by air in the United States every day. From Asia, South America and Africa, they come mainly with visas allowing them to travel, study, do business or attend a conference for a permitted period of time. But when their visas expire, some of them fall into the same illegal status that is often associated with migrants appearing on the southern border.
Nearly half of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country did not cross the desert or the Rio Grande to enter the country; they flew in with a legal visa, were checked at the airport - and stayed.
Of the approximately 3,5 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country between 2010 and 2017, 65% came with official permission affixed to their passports, according to new data compiled by the Center for Migration Studies. More people came from India during this period than from any other country.
“The big overlooked immigration story is that more than twice as many people have entered with visas than have crossed illegally in recent years,” said Robert Warren, a demographer who quantified delinquency data using the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey.
Since Trump has called for the hiring of thousands of new border patrol agents and the construction of miles of new fences, federal immigration authorities have allocated relatively few resources to the much larger number of illegal immigrants who have expired.
The Department of Homeland Security said that over the past 2 years it has been possible to slightly reduce the number of visa delinquencies, but enforcement measures are difficult because the authorities are just beginning to gain access to more accurate data about who flew and did not fly out of the country.
According to the migration center, overstayed immigrants in the United States make up about 46% of the 10,7 million illegal immigrants. We are not talking about a huge jump in visa delays - rather, the proportion of such cases has increased against the background of a huge decrease in the number of border crossings since 2000.
The largest number of illegal immigrants - about 1 million - hail from Mexico, a neighboring country with a long history of commercial and family ties and significant cross-border flows. But the picture is changing. Between 2010 and 2017, 330 Indians overstayed their visas - more than visitors from any other country. There are many expired visas for people from China, Venezuela, the Philippines, Brazil and Colombia.
According to the Center for Migration Studies, many unregistered Asians, including most from India, settled like Osh in Sunnyvale and its environs, about 50 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Apple, LinkedIn, and other tech titans in the region are hiring many of the companies sponsored for legal work visas or permanent residency in the United States. Some of them remain independent programming contractors after the expiration of their visas or after leaving the company that sponsored them for a visa.
But they are only part of the story. Many undocumented Indians in Sunnyvale work in low-skilled jobs to serve their well-off brothers, who often go to Indian supermarkets, snack bars, and clothing stores.
For example, 24-year-old S. Singh works in a diner where a crowd of his compatriots buys lunches. Like most others interviewed for this story, he refused to give his full name, but said he arrived as a 2 tourist a year ago. In nearby Indian grocery stores, Indian workers were placing food on shelves. They did not dare to answer questions, not to mention touching on the topic of their entry. But one of them said that he received a student visa, which expired.
In a closed restaurant, two Indian men and two women slept on long benches before dinner, where customers would later sit. Ankit, an Indian engineer working on a legal visa in the United States, who saw this picture when he came to lunch, assumed that these people did not have documents - just like the Indian who was driving the taxi that brought Ankit to the restaurant.
The government reported that almost 670 000 travelers who arrived by air or sea and were due to leave for the 2018 financial year did not leave the country by 30 September 2018. This number was reduced to almost 415 700 by March 2019 of the year, because many people are delayed for only a few months.
But, according to experts, the development of policies to limit delinquency requires accurate data, and representatives of the National Security still do not have a reliable system to track them.
Most travelers take photographs and fingerprints at US consulates abroad when they receive a visa, and then again upon arrival in the United States. However, customs and border protection still depends on the biographical data provided by the airlines when sending passengers to count those who did not leave on time or did not leave at all.
In 2016, federal officials began working with airlines and airport authorities to establish a biometric gate comparison system. A digital photograph of those who board a plane to leave the country is compared with a photograph taken on arrival.
The program now covers between 4% and 5% of people departing every day, said John F. Wagner, Deputy Assistant Executive Commissioner for Customs and Border Control. In an interview, he said his agency hopes to reach 90% of departing travelers within three years.
The Immigration and Customs Service, which enforces immigration rules in the interior of the country, said priority is given to identifying those who pose a potential threat to national or public security. In fiscal year 2018, the National Security Investigation Unit made 1808 arrests for violating visa deadlines.
Many of those who have expired their visas do not intend to stay in the country illegally, said Kalpana Peddibhotla, an immigration attorney in the San Francisco Bay area.
“They came with a specific purpose and lost their status for various reasons, and then realized that there was no simple mechanism to correct violations of their status,” she said.
Graduates from American universities are allowed to stay in the United States for a certain period of time to work, but violating deadlines or making mistakes in immigration forms will automatically make them subject to deportation. Sometimes employers transfer foreign workers to a new place and do not amend their documents as required, which also cancels their legal status.
“They stay because they built their life here, bought houses here, they had children here,” Peddibhotla said.
Among Asians, in particular, being an illegal immigrant is to bring shame on the family. Like some others, O senior, his wife and daughter declined to be interviewed for this article, although the daughter was able to help her parents get green cards after she married an American.
“My parents are not proud of breaking the law,” said Oh, who also now has a green card. "To this day, most of their church friends do not know they have no documents."
In places like Sunnyvale, it’s easy for people to hide their immigration status.
"Especially if they are not from Mexico or Latin America, no one suspects they are undocumented," said Kathy Jean, executive director of Immigrants Rising, a law firm that works with young illegal immigrants.
“Their parents encourage them to look down, not share their stories, not speak out on immigration issues,” Jean said.
Marilyn Omatang left Manila in 2004 with her oldest child, Dean, who was then 12 years old, to join her husband, who had come to California two years earlier.
“She told me we were going to Disneyland,” Dean recalled.
But they had to stay in the United States in order to earn money and provide a child with special needs who needed expensive medical care, as well as to educate three more children who live in the Philippines with relatives.
“With only a job at 7-Eleven, I could pay for the treatment and their education,” said 56-year-old Omatang, who had grown to a managerial position. She was fired only after a colleague told her boss that she was living in the United States illegally.
For over 10 years, she has been working as a caregiver for wealthy elderly people in Silicon Valley, never revealing her status and using a different name to report her income to the federal tax authorities.
According to Omatang, one of her employers is a supporter of Trump, who supports a tough approach to illegal immigration.
“I heard her say, 'Just send all these illegal immigrants home,” says Omatang. "And I thought: if you only knew ..."
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