An estimated 700,000 foreigners who came legally to the United States failed to return home when their visas expired last year, according to estimates released Tuesday.
The report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is based on 52,656,022 admissions in fiscal year 2017 of temporary workers and families, students, exchange visitors, tourists, and business travelers. It does not include travelers from Canada or Mexico who came by land.
The department estimates that 1.33 percent of those admissions through an airport or seaport resulted in overstays. Advocates of stricter immigration enforcement noted Tuesday that the percentage translates to 701,900 overstays.
“Even though the percentage is low, 700,000 people is still a lot of people,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA.
Matthew O’Brien, director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), agreed, saying, “That is a massive number of people. That’s like the population of two midsize cities.”
Some visitors who overstay their visas return home after a short period of time. The DHS report estimates that 606,926 of the people expected to leave remained in the United States by the end of fiscal year 2017. That represents 1.15 percent, which is a decline from the overstay rate as of the end of fiscal year 2016 — 1.25 percent, or 628,799.
By May 1 of this year, the number of foreigners who overstayed a visa from the previous fiscal year had dropped to 421,325 — an overstay rate of just 0.8 percent.
The report broke out air and sea travelers from Mexico and Canada separately. The agency estimated that for Canada, 1.01 percent of the 9.2 million expected departures by air or sea resulted in overstays. The rate for Mexico was 1.63 percent of the 2.9 million expected departures.
O’Brien said the numbers suggest that the annual overstay figures add to the total number of illegal immigrants.
“My guess is that the bulk of these are people who stay long term and become part of the illegal alien population,” he said.
The overstay rate varies from category to category and from country to country. Here is a look at how DHS breaks down the statistics by group:
- For foreigners from countries where visas are not required, the overstay rate was .51 percent of the 22.47 million expected departures.
- For countries not part of the visa waiver program, the overstay rate was 1.91 percent of the more than 14.6 million expected departures.
- For foreigners who entered on student visas, 4.15 percent of the 1.66 million student stayed beyond the authorized window of departure.
Chmielenski said there are things U.S. officials could do to reduce overstays further.
“For starters, as we’ve been saying for years and years and years, it speaks to the need for [the government] to implement the biometric exit/entry system, which Congress mandated 10 years ago and authorized money for, four or five times, but still hasn’t been done,” he said.
That mandate grew out of recommendations from the 911 commission, which identified the visa system as a vulnerability that adds to the risk of terrorism.
The federal government never fully implemented it, however. The DHS report referenced field tests of facial recognition technology for international travelers at Atlanta/Hartsfield International Airport in fiscal year 2016 and demonstration projects at eight other airports from Jan. 1, 2017, to November 30 involving 175,000 travelers and 1,500 fights.
“DHS will continue to develop and test the entry and exit system during FY 2018, both biometric and biographic, and this testing will improve CBP’s [Customs and Border Protection] ability to capture and report this data accurately,” the report states.
Chmielenski said there is no obvious reason why the system is not already up and running. He said the government should alert foreigners when their visas are about to expire, adding that this alone should improve compliance.
He added that the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices also should be getting regular lists of overstayers so agents can track them down and send them home as soon as possible.
“Until [President Donald] Trump makes it a priority, you’re not going to see it happen,” he said.
O’Brien attributed the delays partly to opposition from airlines and the tourism industry, which fears that the system would delay travelers, and government ineptitude when it comes to technology.
There is no doubt that annual visa overstays add to the illegal immigrant population in America, but it is difficult to determine how much, given the natural churn resulting from deaths and people returning to their home countries each year.
Annual estimates of the illegal immigrant population have held steady for nearly a decade. The most common estimate is about 11 million.
A study by the Center for Migration Studies earlier this year pegged the number as of 2016 at 10.8 million, the smallest since 2003.
But O’Brien said counting people who inherently strive to fly under the radar is notoriously difficult.
“I believe that all of those estimates are off,” he said.