If curbing illegal immigration is the goal, as politicians in the United States and Europe argue, then no wall or border fence will stop the West’s largest source of such immigrants. They are not the subject of televised debates or of long stories highlighting their plight. Many are invisible, making them hard to count, and little attention is paid to them. Yet focusing on them might yield better results than focusing on those fleeing violence and persecution.
The group in question? Visa overstays.
These immigrants, who enter countries legally on student, tourist, or work visas and then stay past their visa’s expiration date, are often overlooked in the discussion of illegal immigration. But in the past 10 years, visa overstays in the United States have outnumbered border crossings by a ratio of about 2 to 1, according to Robert Warren, who was for a decade the director of the statistics division at the agency that has since been renamed U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and who is now a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, a New York–based organization. Elsewhere, the issue is even more pronounced—in Britain and Australia, the absence of a land border of the kind the United States has with Mexico and Canada means that nearly all illegal immigration comes in the form of visa overstays. Most people who are in Britain illegally, for example, entered legally and simply stayed on after their visa expired, research by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory shows.