Exit Strategies: Immigrants and the Issue of Overstayed Visas

By Guest Columnist Oct 13, 2009

Written by Adebe DeRango-Adem Despite the extensive measures used by DHS officials to control who enters the country, there is no current system for verifying when foreign visitors leave. The New York Times recently ran a story on Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year-old Jordanian who overstayed his tourist visa and was recently accused of plotting to blow up a Dallas skyscraper. In the last year, research reports have suggested that nearly 3 million foreign visitors entered into the US on temporary visas, never officially checking out. While more than $1 billion from Congress has gone into the expansion of immigration monitoring systems since September 11, the Smadi case has brought about a renewed interest for officials to implement new systems to track not merely who enters the US, but ensure that people leave on the dates specified on their visas. Smadi’s case has brought about a stir from immigration officials who are now attempting to implement a universal electronic exit monitoring system. Senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith has said that the Smadi case “points to a real need for an entry and exit system if we are serious about reducing illegal immigration.” Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, said that efforts would be made to steer money from the economic stimulus program to help build an exit monitoring system. Such a system would prove to be more costly than effective, clogging trade routes and overwhelming immigration agencies, given the 1 million + crossings that happen every day. Homeland security officials have not yet established the technology to support plans for a large-scale exit tracking system. Currently, customs officers are required to take fingerprints and digital photographs of visitors from most countries, including those coming from Canada and Mexico, and compare new visitor profiles with law enforcement watch list databases – a friendly welcome that doubles as a warning to all those entering the home of the brave. What immigration authorities have implemented is a separate system for tracking those on student visas, while a multi-document program under SEVIS ensures all interns and trainees check in with immigration officials before, during, and after their stay. Though a system seemingly up in arms with those in the country who overstay their visas, immigration officials have largely thrown their arms up at the issue, as it remains primarily up to law enforcement officials to track visitors and thwart those who may engage in suspicious activity while no longer authorized to remain in the US. Ensuring that immigrants are kept on a close watch, with new infrastructures being designed to eventually eliminate the possibility of overstays, immigration policies in the US continue to undermine the critical economic contributions immigrants make to the country. Tactics such as threatening to deport or ban those with overstayed visas from entering the US are used as mechanisms of exploitation. Immigration reform should enable “legal” status, not resort to a debate on who gets to stay, or worse, be on the lookout for new deportations. To highlight, while an end to the 287(g) program is not yet in sight, Alonzo Pena, a top Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, currently presented Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio with an agreement that would allow for jail checks and not field arrests, an arrangement Arpaio was initially hoping to renew with DHS.