Conservatives, like most of the country, want to see America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico made more secure. Of course, that makes sense. Our current physical barriers – a half completed wall and nearly open spaces, plus underground tunnels — remain penetrable. Many illegal aliens still enter the country with relative ease.
But lost in the debate over the Wall is the reality that cross-border flows are only half the problem. In fact, more than 50% of 10-20 million illegal aliens currently in the country actually entered legally — on short-term visas, as students or tourists — and simply never left as required. They’ve become — in the parlance of immigration policy – visa “over-stayers.”
Reinforcing the border does nothing to deter them; in fact, as the border becomes tighter, it may even cause their intrusions to increase.
Most over-stayers aren’t from Mexico. About 20% are from Brazil and Venezuela. More than 40% are from South Korea, China, India and Saudi Arabia. Many come with skills, looking for high-paying jobs. They don’t fit the profile of the low-skill impoverished Mexican or Central American illegal.
About 15% eventually do leave but the vast majority of them stay, in part, because there is simply no easy way to track and apprehend them. Moreover, the penalty for overstaying a legal visa is less severe than the one for illegal entry. Under current US law, it’s not even considered a “crime,” but an “administrative violation,” punishable with a fine – and eventual deportation.
But forcing over-stayers out is easier said than done. Last year, President Trump initiated a long-overdue crackdown on H-1B visa applicants that had overstayed their F, J or M student visas. These former students were supposed to go home after completing their degree but most did not. Instead, they tried to convert their visa status to H-1B, which would allow American businesses to scoop them up at below market wages that price out native-born workers.
It’s not illegal to try to obtain an H-1B visa, but the student visa programs are not intended to undermine the American labor force, which is the effect, intended or not, of such visa conversion programs. Businesses and colleges are pressuring Trump to abandon his crackdown on these H-1 applicants on the grounds that it deprives America of high-skill scientific talents that will go elsewhere if not employed domestically.
Trump’s position in the past has been clear. In 2017, he issued an executive order in 2017 declaring over-stayers a “threat to public safety and national security” and ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make their mandatory departure a stronger enforcement priority. Many observers recall that five of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their student visas. Conservatives especially are anxious to see Trump make progress on this front.
The president has various crackdown options available. One is to stiffen the penalties for over-staying to include a 10-year ban on re-entry, which could serve as a deterrent. Another is to institute a biometric identification system that matches visa entrances and exits and zeroes in on those that are engaged in a pattern of serial over-staying.
The problem, as with all such IT systems, is the duplication of databases – some 27 in all — and the extraordinary length of time it takes understaffed DHS enforcement divisions to retrieve the relevant information.
Trump faces a similar problem instituting the “E-Verify” workplace verification system that could deter illegal hiring across the board. The system is in place at the federal level and in some form or another in 20 states nationwide. But users complain that the system is inefficient and still false identifies US citizens and legal immigrants as “illegal” while allowing job applicants that do not have legal papers to slip through the net.
In the final analysis, though, the issue is political will. Many of the potential technical glitches have already been fixed. Trump could sign an already drafted executive order that would make E-Verify mandatory nationwide. However, as with the crackdown on over-stayers, he would likely face a massive push back from employers that don’t want to be drawn into immigration enforcement and who prefer to have access to pools of foreign-born workers, whether they arrived legally or not.
There’s a real paradox here. Trump finds himself at the mercy of the capitalist business system that he frequently extols as part of his “Make America Great Again” strategy. American business have benefited mightily from Trump’s policies and want to continue to do so – and Trump needs his business allies to prevail on various policy fronts.
However, Trump’s other main policy plank — “Buy American, Hire American” — demands that he support native-born workers, many of whom are seeing their jobs displaced or their wages depressed by the mass entry of foreign-born workers annually. Right now, when it comes to immigration especially, these two Trump visions are sharply at odds.
At some point, Trump needs to confront American businesses – including some of his closest allies — that have become addicted to cheap foreign labor — and don’t seem to care much how they get it.
In 2016, Trump promised to put “America First.” The president has less than two years left to demonstrate that he plans to fulfill that promise – and not just at the border. Trump’s broader policy failures on immigration could well put his re-election at risk.