More than half a million foreigners stayed in the United States after their visas expired during the last fiscal year, according to a new report released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Monday.
Of the more than 50 million foreigners that entered the U.S., 1.47 percent -- or 739,478 people -- stayed in the country past the length of their visa. That includes those who stay one day over their allowable time, as well as people who have no intention of ever leaving the U.S.
This report shows that “we have a problem with visa overstays in the United States,” said a senior DHS official Monday, pointing out that the number of people who stayed in the U.S. illegally is close to the population of Seattle.
“The integrity of our immigration system is at stake,” the official added.
Of the total number of overstays last year, 628,799 people or 1.25 percent had no record of departure, known as an “in-country” overstay at the end of the fiscal year, according to DHS. However, due to continued departures and changes to immigration status, that number decreased over time. By January 10, the official number of people who overstayed visas in the fiscal year of 2016 had dropped to 544,676.
This is the second year that DHS has formally released these numbers.
The report, which is only a snapshot in time, represents about 96 percent of all people entering the U.S. on a temporary visa, including temporary workers, students, exchange visitors, personal travel and business travel – a larger pool of people than the 2015 report. The only exceptionsin 2016 were airline crews and transiting passengers.
However, the report does not include people entering the U.S through land checkpoints, but in some cases departures to Canada or Mexico are included to close out a case.
When determining if someone overstayed a visa, DHS needs to take into account whether they applied for a more permanent immigration benefit or legally extended their stay in the U.S.
The U.K. followed by Germany, Italy and France had the largest total number of people overstaying their travel visas for business or pleasure, among countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of 38 countries to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism without a visa.
The visa waiver program promotes commerce and ease of travel, but it also creates national security risks, as Europeans from those countries who have fought with ISIS in the Middle East return home.
“They have learned how to make IEDs, employ drones to drop ordnance, and acquired experience on the battlefield that by all reports they are bringing back home,” said DHS Sec. John Kelly at a recent speech.
“They can more easily travel to the United States which makes us a prime target for their exported violence,” he added.
This has been a national security concern for years. For example, two of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001, were visa overstays, prompting the 9/11 Commission to call for the government to track visitors to the U.S. on entry and exit.
Brazil had by far the most total overstays from countries that do not participate in the visa waiver program – followed by Venezuela, China, Colombia and Nigeria.
While DHS says it is confident in its data, there is a chance that someone could leave the U.S. as an “imposter” because departures are currently only tracked using biographic data, like an airplanes manifest.
Without biometric data – like fingerprints, facial recognition -- there is a chance that someone could lie about leaving.
Despite Congressional mandate and years of officials calling for biometric exit data, it still remains a challenge for DHS.
Airports were never designed to control customs departure from within the U.S., according to DHS. For example, international departures and domestic departures coming at airports.
In addition, if you scan someone too early in the check-in process, there is still a chance they could lie about leaving and if you scan at the gate, you run into time and space constraints.
There is currently a pilot program at the Atlanta airport that is using facial recognition to match people with their photos as they leave the country.
When people overstay their visas the data is shared with ICE to carry out enforcement. It’s provided daily and in conjunction with ICE’s priorities, like national security and law enforcement needs.
However, a DHS inspector general report earlier this month found that a “fragmented, ineffective” set of information technology (IT) systems hinder efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track visa overstays.
ICE relies on IT systems that lack integration and information-sharing capabilities, forcing ICE personnel to piece together information from up to 27 distinct DHS information systems and databases to accurately determine an individual’s overstay status.
This inefficient process has contributed to a backlog of more than 1.2 million visa overstay cases – taking months for ICE to determine a visa holder’s status and whether someone poses a national security threat, found the report.