America’s Overlooked Undocumented Immigrants: Their Stories and Identification Can Be Overwhelming

While President Donald Trump is locked on putting a stop to the movement of unauthorized immigrants across the US-Mexico border (as reflected in his immigration policy and popular Trump wall project), almost half of the people with an unlawful residence in America were fully granted permission into the country.

How nearly half of America’s undocumented immigrants entered the country with permission.

The demographer, Robert Warren, who calculated overstay estimates by using the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey said, “A big overlooked immigration story is that twice as many people came in with a visa than came across the border illegally in recent years.”

In fact, as border crossings decline greatly since 2000, the proportion of the undocumented population made up of people overstaying their visas mounts accordingly.

The new figures compiled by the Center for Migration Studies (a New York City-based nonpartisan think tank) show that 65 percent of the about 3.5 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country between 2010 and 2017 arrived with full permission stamped into their passports.

Now, almost half, precisely 46 percent of the 10.7 million people with an unlawful residence in America are made up of some of the 350,000 travelers from different places and continents including Asia, South America and Africa that legally arrive by air in the United States each day to stay for a sanctioned length of time touring, studying, doing business or attending a conference but overstayed their visas. As a result, they end up being illegal residents of the country like the undocumented immigrants who entered illegally through the border.

Evidently, however, a huge cut from the number of undocumented immigrants now in the country did not enter the country through the Southern border trekking through the desert or wading across the Rio Grande. Instead, they landed themselves the illegal status as a result of staying in the country beyond visa expiration dates.

Indeed, an undermined immigration story. This much larger number of undocumented immigrants consisting of visa overstayers has been largely overlooked by the federal immigration authorities up until recently.

Much more resources are rather put into halting unauthorized border crossings than the interior enforcement for undocumented immigrants who overstayed their visas as Mr. Trump has called for hiring thousands of new Border Patrol agents and erecting miles of new fencing.

Consequently, as the former federal visa officer who is now policy director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Jessica Vaughan says, “Once they are in the country, they are home free because there is little interior enforcement.”

The Larger number of undocumented immigrants in the United States who overstayed a visa – who are they?

Mexico which shares the Southern border with the US is known to produce the highest number of America’s undocumented immigrants who overstayed a visa – about 1 million in figure – in past years. But in recent years, however, Indians have been found to make up the largest group of overstayers in the United States numbering highest between the space of 2010 and 2017 up to 330,000. After India, large numbers of people who also overstayed came from China, Venezuela, the Philippines, Brazil, and Colombia.

The Center for Migration Studies analysis has it that the majority of the Asians who overstayed their visas in the US settled in Sunnyvale, California about 50 miles southeast of San Francisco.

According to Kathy Gin, executive director of Immigrants Rising (a San Francisco-based advocacy organization that works with undocumented youth), non-Mexicans or Latin Americans find it easier to disguise their immigration status since people don’t suspect them of being undocumented. She also said, “Their parents encourage them to keep their heads low, not share their stories, not speak out about immigration issues.”So in places like Sunnyvale where most Asian visa overstayers settle, it’s easy to disguise their immigration status.  

Some of the undocumented immigrants in the area of Sunnyvale were sponsored by companies for legal work visas or permanent residency in the United States and are employed by the tech titans in the area like Apple and LinkedIn.

How do they cope with the illegal status?

When their visas expire or they leave a company that sponsored them for a visa, some of the undocumented immigrants in Sunnyvale stay on as independent programming contractors.

The majority of the Asians of the undocumented population – the Indians – in Sunnyvale have another part of the story to tell. In Sunnyvale, while few of the Indians came on work visas, many others have low skilled jobs, working in the Indian supermarkets, eateries and clothing shops along El Camino Real where their wealthy brethren frequented.

Ankit, an Indian engineer is one of those on a work visa. On a recent afternoon, Ankit visited a restaurant nearby to grab a bite. At the time he arrived, the restaurant was still closed. In the closed restaurant two Indian men and two Indian women workers slept before dinner service, their bodies draped over a long bench where patrons would later be seated. Ankit perceived that just like the Indian Uber driver who had brought him there, they were undocumented. He said, “There are no legal pathways for people working in the restaurants and grocery stores…These workers are coming for a better life.”

When most of these Indian menial workers in Sunnyvale were interviewed for this story according to The New York Times, they declined to share their full names. One of them is 24-year-old S. Singh who works at the diner where the Indian lunch crowd on a recent afternoon dined on spicy lentils and spinach with flatbread and sipped masala chai. He said he had arrived as a tourist two years ago.

Like Mr. S. Singh, undocumented Indians working at nearby Indian grocery stores where they arranged shelves stocked with Taj Mahal tea, basmati rice, and canned Kesar mangoes shared that they entered as tourists too when they were interviewed. Apart from being tourists, they hesitated to answer other questions posed to them. One of them said that he had come on a student visa that had expired.

Many visa overstayers do not intend to lose their legal status.

The immigration story of visa overstayers like Marilyn Omatang – a disguised Asian undocumented immigrant – show that as Kalpana Peddibhotla (an immigration lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area) said, many of those who overstay their visas do not mean to stay illegally.  

Two years after Marilyn Omatang’s husband arrived in California, in 2004, Marilyn set out of Manila with Dean, her eldest child who was then 12. As Marilyn promised her son, they arrived at Disneyland.

But living with their relatives back in the Philippines, are three other children schooling and a special-needs child who needed expensive medical care they had to provide for. As a result, they had to remain in the United States to earn money to provide for them.

In the US, Ms. Omatang got a job where she rose to the position of manager. According to her, with just this job she was able to settle the medical treatment as well as their schooling financial needs. However, after her boss got to know from a co-worker’s report that she was undocumented, she had to discontinue the work.  

Since then, she has been a caretaker to wealthy seniors in Silicon Valley for over a decade now. During this time, she made sure to keep her status unrevealed and used a different name to report her income to the federal tax authorities.

Ms. Omatang said when she overheard one of her employers who is Trump supporter and favours a tough approach to undocumented immigration say ‘just send all those illegal people back home,’ she thought to herself, ‘Oh, oh. If you only knew.”    

Indeed, Kalpana Peddibhotla’s words explain the situation of many overstayers who lost their legal status. She said, “They entered with a specific purpose and fell out of Status for a variety of reasons, only to realize there is no easy mechanism to correct their status violations.”

Some of these undocumented immigrants are graduates of American universities, allowed to remain in the United States for a period of time to work but who for some reason have difficulty meeting up the deadlines or commit errors on immigration forms that automatically render them deportable. In some other cases, they are foreign workers who are transferred by their employers to a new site who fails to adjust their paperwork, as required, which would have prevented them from their present illegal status.

Ms. Peddibhotla became familiar with Indian overstay cases while on the South Asian Bar Association of North America. She said, “They stay because they built their lives here, bought homes here, had children here.”

Visa overstayers are difficult to track

According to the Department of Homeland Security, though over the past two years, their efforts to reducing the figure of visa overstayers have slightly paid off, enforcement is difficult as authorities are only beginning to gain access to better data on who has and has not flown out of the country. 

To tally visa overstayers who did not leave the country in time, or at all, the Customs and Border Protection continue to rely on the biographical information from the manifests of departing travelers provided by airlines while most travelers are photographed and fingerprinted at American consulates abroad when they receive a visa and then again on arrival in the US.

However, as regards the President’s direction to the DOS to develop policies to combat visa overstays, experts say that accurate data is required and Homeland Security officials still lack a reliable system to track them.

John Wagner, a deputy assistant executive commissioner for Customs and Border Protection notes that so far, the program the federal officials initiated in 2016 when they worked with airlines and airport authorities to install a biometric facial-comparison system at departure gate – which is essentially a comparison of a digital picture taken boarding a plane to leave the country and the one taken on their arrival – covers 4 to 5 percent of those departing by air each day. In an interview, John Wagner said that within three years, his agency hopes to cover 90 percent of departing travelers.

In the 2018 fiscal year when the nearly 670,000 travelers the government reported who arrived by air or sea were expected to depart. But by Sept. 30, 2018, they had not yet left. Only by March 2019 did that number drop to nearly 415,700 because many people overstay by just a few months.

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