Talk about unauthorized immigrants, and our minds often goes to those arriving across the southern border.
Yet there's another group, one that accounts for about 40 percent of the estimated 11.3 million people living in the U.S. illegally. They came into the country on temporary visas and overstayed, flying for the most part under the immigration radar.
Visa overstayers receive relatively scant mention in the national debate over illegal immigration, although federal statistics suggest more people have overstayed on expired visas last year than have been arrested crossing the southern border in the same period.
Despite what could be as many as 4.5 million overstayers in the country, the federal government can’t provide an accurate count of people with expired visas because officials don’t have a good way to track them.
“We count people coming in, but we don’t really count people coming out," said Randy Capps, a demographer with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "So we can’t match entries with exits, and without being able to match the exits, we really don’t know how many overstays there are, with very much precision.”
Addressing those who remain in the country with expired visas also largely fails to break into public discussion about counter-terrorism measures, although two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the U.S. on expired visas at the time of the attacks.
This year, the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan research group based in New York, provided one estimate of overstayers, calculating that about 42 percent of the roughly 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. during 2014 were people who remained in the country after their visas expired.
According to the same report, visa overstays have outpaced illegal border-crossing arrests in the past decade.
In fiscal year 2016 alone, the Department of Homeland Security reported close to 409,000 apprehensions along the Mexican border in fiscal year 2016. A report by the agency released last month calculated that at the end of fiscal year 2016, nearly 630,000 travelers who arrived on temporary visas by air or sea were thought to still be in the U.S. with expired permits.
Visa overstayers come to the U.S. from around the world. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Canada led at the end of fiscal 2015 with the largest number of visitors here on expired visas after coming by air or sea, followed by Mexico, Brazil and Germany.
Data on visa overstayers released by Homeland Security is likely understated: it includes only those who arrived by air or sea and does not count others who arrived by land, crossing the borders with a valid visa in hand.
Carolina is one such visa overstayer. Twelve years ago, she arrived from Mexico on a tourist visa. She said she didn’t intend to stay. “At first we just came to visit," she said in Spanish. "We didn’t bring anything – we only came to visit.”
Carolina, who didn't want her last name used for fear of deportation, said she came with her children to visit her husband’s family in San Fernando Valley.
But once there, the mother in her 40s said she changed her mind. One reason she had traveled to the U.S. from the family's home in the state of Jalisco was to shake the depression she said she suffered when she lost a baby to stillbirth. In the U.S., she said, she felt the fog lifting.
“Like I was liberated, like I could block it out," Carolina said. "I could almost forget.”
With the encouragement of relatives, she decided to stay longer than planned. Then, "time went by, and the kids began going to school, and we stayed.”
When that happened, Carolina joined the ranks of unauthorized immigrants who didn’t cross the border illegally, but rather arrived on a temporary visa, such as issued for visits or studying, and stayed beyond their permitted time.
U.S. can't keep track of visa overstayers
Keeping tabs on people who overstay their visas has proven difficult.
For years, Congress has called for better ways to count those who remain illegally in the country. But aside from several pilot programs that have not gone far, the U.S. hasn't come up with a solution yet, said Claude Arnold, a former field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.
“You can’t definitely verify that someone has departed the country, a non-immigrant," Arnold said. "The only record that would show their departure is airline records. And while that usually is linked to some sort of identification document, it is not linked to biometrics.”
But a nationwide biometric exit-tracking system is far off, and U.S. officials continue to rely on the information contained in travelers' passports to verify travelers' information.
Back in the 1990s, Congress passed a law calling for a system to track visa entries and exits. The same call was repeated with added urgency after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Congressional directives since have sought the development of a fingerprint-based or other biometric system that would let officials know with certainty who leave the U.S. and who doesn't.
According to Migration Policy Institute, a handful of nations, like Australia and the United Kingdom, have developed ways to track visitors who leave their countries. Hong Kong also has an exit tracking system.
But experts say exit tracking systems tend to work better for governments that are islands or have a lower volume of travelers. In the U.S., with its multiple international airports, its busy land borders, and high volume of travelers, it’s proven impossible so far, said Randy Capps.
“It would require deploying technology at every gate at every airport for every international flight, which is prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging," Capps said.
It would be even harder to track those who leave by land, he said.
A few biometric test programs have been tried out in recent years. Last summer, federal officials set up a field test of facial-recognition technology at the Atlanta's international airport to compare images of some departing travelers with their photos on record. The Obama administration also tested a hand-held fingerprint collection device at several airports and biometric technology at the Otay Mesa port of entry near San Diego.
The Trump administration has set a goal of tracking visa overstayers: language in President Trump's revised travel ban calls for Homeland Security officials to "expedite the completion and implementation of a biometric entry exit tracking system."
The travel ban remains hung up by legal challenges, with the president seeking to have it reinstated with a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Still, the border takes center stage. Trump's proposed federal budget calls for $2.6 billion in infrastructure and security technology, including money for the construction of a southern border wall. The Migration Policy Institute's Capps points to one reason why.
"It's very easy to visualize people coming across the border," Capps said. "It’s very easy to visualize whether there is a wall or not. It’s harder to think about the whole system."
Enforcement hampered by lack of information
Immigration officials said they attempt to seek out some visa overstayers, and would gladly look for more, but they have limited information to work with. A recent audit by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General listed a number of technological challenges in tracking overstays, like databases that don't communicate with one another.
The best thing agents have to work with is airline passenger records, and these can be inaccurate, said Arnold, the former local immigration enforcement chief.
“A lot of times they’ll go through that whole process, they’ll locate where the person last lived, and they’ll find out the person did depart the U.S.," he said.
Because agency resources are limited, he said, those investigated tend to be deemed security threats. As for everyone else, "unless they are encountered in some other ICE enforcement action, they are essentially…not going to be looked for proactively," Arnold said.
He added there’s a perception, perhaps misguided, that people who arrive with visas are somehow less risky than those who come without one. “People have to get visas, right?" Arnold said. "They have to go through the inspection process. So, they can’t be that bad.”
Criminal penalties are also nonexistent. While it’s a misdemeanor to enter the country illegally, it’s not a crime to overstay a visa. Pending legislation in the House of Representatives seeks to change that: one measure, introduced earlier this year, would make it a crime to overstay a visa.
Another broader immigration bill recently debated in a House committee would criminalize illegal presence in the U.S., applying to overstayers as well as those who came without visas.
Carolina has heard this news. But she said she works, pays taxes, and raises her kids like any other American.
“If they are saying they are going to deport all the people who entered with visas, then, I guess, that would be me," Carolina said. "But I do not feel like I am a criminal.”
She and her husband, who eventually joined the family here without a visa, are being sponsored by relatives for green cards that would grant them legal resident status.