New Pew Report Confirms Visa Overstays Are Driving Increased Illegal Immigration

By David Seminara, September 24, 2013

A new report from Pew Research's Hispanic Trends Project confirms what many of us have long suspected: Illegal immigration appears to be on the rise again, after a brief decline during the recession. The report estimates that the population of unauthorized immigrants was approximately 11.7 million in 2012, up from 11.5 million in 2011, but down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007. The report also made upward revisions to previous estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population. According to the report, the foreign-born population, legal and illegal, is now at 41.7 million, and 28 percent of those migrants are here illegally.

The most interesting part of the report is the news that our illegal immigrant population is now more diverse — Mexicans now make up just 52 percent of that group, compared to 57 percent in 2007 — and is more often arriving legally and overstaying temporary visas than sneaking across the border. The Pew Report states that "The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants entered the country without valid documents or arrived with valid visas but stayed past their visa expiration date or otherwise violated the terms of their admission."

I've been warning that our biggest illegal immigration concern should be visa overstays, not the border since we published "No Coyote Needed: U.S. Visas Still an Easy Ticket in Developing Countries" five years ago. All of the problems identified in that report have intensified since 2008. We still have no system to track those who enter the country on short term visas; we still allow applicants to arrive as "tourists" and then adjust visa status so that they never have to go home; we still routinely give tourists a six-month stay on arrival and then let them extend for up to 18 months; and we still have shockingly high issuance rates in a variety of developing countries around the world. It should be no surprise that a larger and larger share of our illegal immigrant population arrives legally, most with tourist visas.

Take a look at the visa issuance rates we published in "No Coyote" back in 2008 and take a look at what they were in FY 2012 for selected countries.

Country FY 2007 FY 2012
Brazil 90% 97%
China 79% 91%
Dominican Rep. 60% 68%
Ecuador 72% 81%
India 78% 76%
Indonesia 60% 88%
Iran 55% 62%
Jamaica 62% 58%
Mexico 67% 89%
Nicaragua 54% 72%
Nigeria 68% 66%
Pakistan 60% 63%
Philippines 68% 76%
Russia 88% 90%
Saudi Arabia 94% 92%
Turkey 85% 93%

I picked 16 important countries off the 2007/8 list and the issuance rate went up in 12 of them, in some cases dramatically. The issuance rate in Mexico has gone up by 22 points; in Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country; its increased by 28 points; and in Nicaragua, the issuance rate is 18 points higher now compared to 2007. In the four countries where the issuance rate has declined — India, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, the changes were negligible, ranging from 2–4 percent.

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Legitimate tourists are important to the American economy and the pressure to issue visas and "facilitate" travel (in State Department lingo) is huge. We need to issue visas to tourists who are coming to stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants, and patronize our shops and attractions, no question. And as a passionate traveler who has visited dozens of foreign countries, I'm all about letting the world come visit the United States to see this beautiful country.

But as a former Foreign Service officer who has interviewed thousands of visa applicants, I can also confirm that in most developing countries, the vast majority of tourist visa applicants aren't tourists in the classic sense. (Remember that people who live in wealthy countries are on the visa waiver program and do not need a tourist visa to visit.) Most are staying with friends or family members, not in hotels, and the temptation to pick up casual jobs while in the United States is huge. And so is the opportunity: nearly anyone can stay for up to a year as a tourist, sometimes up to 18 months, if they can cook up a pretty good excuse, which gives one plenty of time to find work.

Before we move forward with any type of immigration reform, we need to take a very close look at our non-immigrant visa issuance policies and also our laws that allow "tourists" to adjust visa status and remain here indefinitely. If we let the problem slide for another five years, it will only get worse.