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Many lawful visitors to the U.S., about 22,000,000 per year, come without the need for a visa. These people are nationals of countries with which the U.S. has a treaty that waives the necessity for a visa. They complete an extensive application on-line, pay a fee and, if approved, are issued a waiver for a visa. In this instance, they are granted a permitted visit of no more than 90 days.
But what if someone does not leave when their approved visit, either by a visa or visa waiver, expires? Traditionally, nothing, unless the person comes to the attention of authorities - which leads to what many people term “living under the radar.” While the numbers of overstays are large, the percentages are not. More than 600,000 people are estimated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to have overstayed their visit here in 2017, the most recent year for which there are complete figures. But this represents only 1.15 percent of the total number of people who entered (and left) the country with a visa (or visa waiver). Still, the number is large, and there are around that number of people overstaying every year.
Adding to confusion about the nature of visit overstays is the language used to describe people in this situation. Are they illegal aliens? Undocumented aliens? Usually, these people are lumped together with people who enter through the southern border undetected. But there are differences. Overstaying a permitted visit is not, in and of itself, a federal crime. It is a civil infraction, with consequences meted out by administrative immigration courts and by civil regulations. And they are not exactly “undocumented.” While someone who sneaks across the border has provided no information about themselves and their background to the government, people who entered with a visa, or who were granted a visa waiver, have provided the U.S. government a large amount of information about themselves to be granted the permission to come here (including their name, address overseas, birth date, family information, education, criminal and employment background and a myriad of other details which can also include financial and banking information). They also have to undergo a criminal background check, so unless someone with a criminal history applies for, and receives, a difficult to obtain waiver of their inadmissibility, they will not be granted the visa, or are not eligible for a visa waiver.
As you have probably heard, congress continues to debate the various ways to prevent illegal entry to the country. The potential methods include increasing physical barriers along the southern border, employing technology that will identify and track those entering, signaling their presence to law-enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, increased numbers of agents at the border to process and return those who enter without permission, and possibly changing the way people who are caught are detained, such as with and without family separation. But successive administrations have struggled with how to decrease visa overstays. If someone remains under the radar, so to speak, how can the government locate them and initiate removal proceedings against them? It appears as though they are finding ways.
You may have read about new technology being employed at airports to identify passengers entering aircraft. Long gone are the days of paper boarding passes. Many people now just place their cell phone, containing a scannable code atop an electronic device that reads the image, which contains the passenger’s name and flight information (along with a host of other information). Another new technology tested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection can identify visit overstayers as they board a plane. Today, there are multiple airlines and airports where, instead of reading a code or a boarding pass, passengers merely look into a camera for a few seconds. In that time, using facial recognition software, a computer will identify the passenger and ensure they are ticketed for that flight. What could be easier? No more standing at a hotel desk asking them to print your boarding pass. No more fumbling for your phone, or ensuring it has enough power to make it to your turn at the front of the line. Just stand still and look at the camera for one or two seconds, and you are done! But for the person who has overstayed a permitted visit, this could be the blip that puts them back on the government’s radar.
The technology is able to do this because visitors going through customs after entering the U.S. at a border crossing or airport have their biometrics (photograph and fingerprints) taken. In fact, the visitor consents to the capture of this information in order to enter the country. If they do not leave, that information is in the system, and can allow the government to initiate deportation proceedings against them if they are located - although many people will be presented with the option to voluntarily depart the U.S. in lieu of going through the deportation process.
In addition, to this new tracking technology - which is likely to become more widespread, we are now hearing of visa overstayers who have been identified without any direct interaction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services or the Transportation Security Administration. Specifically, individuals in our area are receiving emails that say something like this: “My name is [__________], I am a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) based out of New Haven, CT. I am contacting you related to your immigration status in the United States. The records I am looking at indicate your B1 visa expired on [__________]. Please contact me regarding your status in this country ASAP.”
If you or someone you know is in this situation, we recommend that they call our office before they receive a similar email. We will evaluate the situation, advise you of the potential consequences of the overstay and explain your options.