Members of the metro area’s large West African community have long urged relatives to stick around as the expiration dates on their visitor visas loom.
“They say, ‘Stay; we’ll figure something out,’ ” says community leader Abdullah Kiatamba.
Indeed, visitors who overstay their visas have been an extremely low priority for immigration authorities, overshadowed by immigrants who enter illegally. But now some local immigrant communities are bracing for a crackdown.
On the heels of a report last spring that showed almost 630,000 of more than 50 million visitors to the United States stayed after their visas ran out last year, the government vowed to step up enforcement. A new immigration wish list the Trump administration released this month included steps to discourage overstaying visas, such as making it a misdemeanor.
Some who have overstayed visas locally have been caught in a wider net immigration authorities have cast under the Trump administration. But so far, there is little evidence that overstay enforcement is ratcheting up.
“The number of people on nonimmigrant visas is staggering,” said Linus Chan, head of the University of Minnesota’s Detainee Rights Clinic. “It is and will continue to be a challenge to track them.
Not a priority
Visitors who overstay visas have been unlikely to encounter Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents unless they have a criminal conviction.
Twin Cities attorney Steven Thal often works on green card applications for people who overstayed visas years ago and more recently married U.S. citizens. For immigrants who cross the border illegally, marriage to a U.S. citizen doesn’t open a smooth path to legal status: Most have to leave the country and stay away for as long as a decade unless they get a waiver based on family hardship. But those who overstayed visas generally don’t face such penalties.
The case of Alisher Hamrakulov illustrates the second chances granted to foreigners who overstay or violate the terms of their visas. In 2008, Hamrakulov, an Uzbekistan native, left a Montana hospitality and catering company that had sponsored him for a work visa because of frustrations over his pay.
Hamrakulov, who has a finance degree from his home country, landed another job, but that employer never secured a new visa for him. When he went to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to check on his status, a staffer told him, “You shouldn’t be here. You should leave the country.”
He did not. He moved from state to state for a year and a half, consulting with immigration attorneys who told him he was out of options. “I was in a desperate mood,” Hamrakulov recalled.
Then, a Twin Cities real estate company run by a friend offered to sponsor him for a new work visa. With guidance from Thal, Hamrakulov traveled back to Uzbekistan, where the U.S. consulate eventually granted him a visa. He has since secured a green card and runs his own real estate business.
Kiatamba, who heads the nonprofit African Immigrant Services, estimates a quarter of visitors in the West African community overstay their visas. A Liberian grandmother might come to help with a newborn grandchild; as her allotted time draws to a close, she might think, “I see a better opportunity here. I see a network of support.”
Some apply for asylum but stay after their applications are rejected. Some eventually get married to U.S. citizens and get green cards.
There are exceptions to that limited enforcement. The fact that two of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed student visas prompted closer tracking of foreign students. Thal has had several Middle Eastern clients facing deportation after failing to enroll or take a full course load.
“If they fell out of status, ICE was on them like bees on honey,” he said.
In May, the Department of Homeland Security released a report showing that about 629,000 visitors by air or ship slated to return home during fiscal year 2016, or just more than 1 percent of those travelers, overstayed their visas. African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Djibouti, had some of the highest overstay rates.
Biometric system in works
A DHS Inspector General report this year highlighted the shaky system for tracking overstays, requiring ICE to comb through dozens of databases. A Trump executive order on immigration enforcement called on DHS to speed up the completion of a biometric system to track departures, in the works for years.
In Minnesota, some advocates are seeing evidence that changes might be underway. Chan at the U’s Detainee Rights Clinic says he saw an uptick in people without criminal records who overstayed visas in immigration detention this summer, including some on visitor, student and work visas.
Vincent Martin, a Twin Cities immigration attorney, says he had a string of foreign student clients this summer. Immigration officers came to check on them after they failed to enroll for the coming academic year.
“These are students for whom English is a second language, with no criminal history, and ICE agents are coming to their homes,” Martin said. “It is a frightening experience.”
Several people who overstayed visitor visas have asked Kiatamba how worried they should be. One Liberian woman, who applied for asylum unsuccessfully, told him she planned to leave her job at a group home and return to Africa.
Overall, overstays seem to remain a low enforcement priority. Shawn Neudauer, a St. Paul-based spokesman for ICE, said that last winter, the agency targeted people from Syria, Iran and other countries who had overstayed cultural exchange visas. He said the operation led to a small number of arrests in the region, and he is not aware of specific plans to target overstays.
ICE simply doesn’t have resources to step up overstay enforcement, says Jessica Vaughan at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration. She says the tougher measures on the administration’s wish list would be effective in discouraging overstays. The administration said overstays make up 40 percent of illegal immigration, but some experts say the percentage is higher.
“The Trump administration has identified overstays as a big problem, and rightfully so,” Vaughan said. “I don’t think overstaying a visa is a lesser offense than crossing the border illegally.”
But some immigrant advocates argue that many immigrants who overstay visas have legitimate claims to remain in the United States, from asylum to community ties. In the absence of criminal records, advocates say, they do belong at the bottom of the list of candidates for deportation.
“The general sentiment that I have heard over and over from clients is, ‘Why am I a priority to Immigration when I haven’t committed a crime?’ ” Martin said.