Nearly three quarters of a million foreign travelers to the U.S. didn’t go home when their visas expired in 2016, according to a new report from the Department of Homeland Security.
The figure provides a revealing snapshot of what has become the country’s single largest source of illegal immigration: visa overstays.
Of the more than 50 million non-immigrant admissions at U.S. air and sea ports of entry who were expected to depart last year, 739,478 overstayed their admission, according to DHS’s “Fiscal Year 2016 Entry/Exit Overstay Report.”
Within that group, DHS determined 628,799 were suspected “in-country” overstays, meaning that federal authorities have no recorded departure for those visa holders. In-country overstays, an unknown number of which are still in the U.S., accounted for 1.25 percent of all non-immigrant visa arrivals at U.S. sea and airports in 2016. The report did not include data for entries at land ports of entry.
Visa overstays from around the world — often overshadowed by migrants who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border — make up the largest share of illegal aliens in the U.S. today. Although estimates vary, federal authorities say about 40 percent of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants traveled here on legitimate visas and never returned to their countries of origin.
DHS changed the way it calculates visa overstays for FY16, but an analysis of the most popular visa categories shows a 13 percent increase in overstays from the previous year, reports USA TODAY.
While overstay rates varied significantly by country, the worst violators were citizens from countries excluded from the visa waiver program. Several African countries, including Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Cameroon, had overstay rates well above 25 percent.
Student visa holders were also common offenders, the DHS report shows. Of the 1,457,556 students and exchange visitors scheduled to complete their program in the United States in FY16, 79,818 stayed past their visa term. About 41,000 of those were in-country overstays, meaning that foreign students were more than twice as likely as the average visa holder to stay past their visa expiration and remain in the U.S.
Visitors from Canada and Mexico accounted for a combined 182,000 overstays — about 23 percent of total for FY16 — but their in-country overstay rates were relatively low at 1.33 and 1.52 percent, respectively.
Immigration authorities have struggled for years to investigate and prosecute visa holders who violate their terms of entry. A DHS inspector general report from earlier in May found that the agency has a backlog of about 1.2 million expired visa cases, largely due to an antiquated information technology system that forces Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to query 27 different databases for information on visa holders. (RELATED: Report: Massive Overstayed Visa Backlog May Threaten National Security)
DHS says it us stepping up investigations of overstay cases while seeking out potential visa holders who may pose a threat to public safety.
“To protect the American people from those who seek to do us harm, and to ensure the integrity of the immigration system, ICE has recently increased overstay enforcement operations,” the overstay report said. “Each year, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations special agents systematically review approximately one million records of individuals who violate the terms of their visas or the visa waiver program, prioritizing leads that pose national security or public safety threats.”
DHS a plans to expand a pilot program first implemented in Atlanta in 2016 that uses facial recognition technology to confirm the identity of departing travelers. Customs and Border Protection will implement the technology at “seven additional airports” in the coming months, according to the DHS report.
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