To Prevent Visa Overstays, Immigration Reform May Get Technical

Foreign visitors are a vital part of the Las Vegas economy, with over 1.7 million coming in 2007 alone. Of the roughly 40 million foreign visitors who entered the United States on temporary visas in 2008, 92.5% are confirmed to have left the country. As a recent New York Times article explains, this does not mean that the other 3 million individuals remained in the United States, but rather that they failed to check out properly or at all. Only 0.5% is thought to have overstayed their visas intentionally.

In the United States, as in most countries, immigrants are given a paper Departure Card to surrender upon exiting the country. But with the country’s two huge land borders and dozens of international airports, tracking the timely departure of tens of millions of individuals seems too tall an order for a paper-based system. In addition to this antiquated system’s potential for error—with a lost card here, a misfiled one there—many immigrants simply do not know how to check out properly for reasons of inattentiveness, language barriers, etc.

Since the vast majority of visitors follow the rules, this tracking might seem unimportant. But consider Hosam Smadi, who visited the United States from Jordan, overstayed his visa, and was arrested in 2008 in connection with a plot to blow up a monument in Dallas, Texas. Mr. Smadi’s case shows the importance of tracking foreign visitors, as some can pose security threats.

Also remarkable is the extent to which Mr. Smadi was able to establish himself in the country despite his immigration status: Mr. Smadi held a job, rented a home, bought used cars and firearms, and even married briefly, all on an expired tourist visa. He was arrested for driving without insurance in Texas, but he had no criminal history and his immigration status remained unknown to the officers who processed him. If not for the FBI operation in Dallas, Mr. Smadi may have maintained his presence for a long time.

Developing new ways to track foreign visitors to the United States is vital for both national security and effective immigration policy, and it should be a central plank of immigration reform. An electronic tracking system, for instance, could reduce errors and speed up processing while also using email or other electronic means to help visitors understand the constraints of their visas. It would also help identify individuals who are trying to overstay their visas, whether to do the country harm or to just to circumvent the legal process of gaining residency. (An estimated 40% of the 11-12 million illegal immigrants in the country originally entered on a valid visa.)

As the article discusses, it is possible to track the entrance and exit of foreign visitors with precision. Foreigners who visit the United States on student visas are held to much stricter standards of visa compliance than prevail overall.

Immigration reform must deal with the twin challenges of addressing current illegal aliens and systematizing better border policies. A 21st-century visitor-tracking system is a necessity for both goals.

If you have overstayed your visa or want to know if upcoming immigration reforms will help you, please contact our attorney in Las Vegas or Reno.

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