Canadians, not Mexicans, represent largest number of visa overstays in the U.S., according to Department of Homeland Security
OTTAWA — U.S. President Donald Trump may want to build a wall along the Mexican border, but, in recent years, studies suggest the majority of unauthorized immigrants settling in the U.S. have arrived legally — not by crossing the border unlawfully.
And according to a new U.S. government report, the largest group of people who enter the U.S. legally and then overstay their welcome aren’t coming across the southern border at all. They’re coming from Canada.
Nearly 93,000 Canadians stayed in the U.S. longer than they were permitted in 2017, according to data released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security, far more than from any other country. In comparison, Mexico accounted for about 47,000 visa overstays.
The new data, which shows that more than 600,000 travellers overstayed their U.S. visas last year, comes as the U.S. government looks to close gaps that have made it difficult to track visitors and ensure they leave when they’re supposed to.
Research suggests visa overstays are now a larger source of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. than undocumented border crossings. The Center for Migration Studies found in a 2017 report that overstays had exceeded illegal crossings every year from 2007 to 2014.
Still, experts say it’s unlikely the U.S. will target its northern neighbour as it attempts to address the issue.
“I don’t know if these numbers are necessarily indicating that Canada’s a serious risk to America,” said Henry Chang, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer licensed in Ontario and California.
A big part of the reason Canada tops the visa overstay list, Chang said, is simply that a lot of Canadians travel to the U.S. Last year, 9.2 million Canadians were expected to leave the U.S., compared to 2.9 million Mexicans. Chang pointed out that the rate of Canadian visa overstays — about one per cent — is much lower than that of many developing countries.
We’re hardly the worst offender, and I don’t think they’re necessarily going to single us out
“We’re hardly the worst offender, and I don’t think they’re necessarily going to single us out,” he said.
While Canada is the biggest culprit when it comes to visa overstays, the Center for Migration Studies estimates that Canadians accounted for just 0.4 per cent of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2015, while Mexicans made up more than half of the unauthorized population.
Chang said some Canadians end up staying in the U.S. longer than the standard six-month limit for tourists because they don’t realize they’re breaking the law. He mentioned one client of his who married a U.S. citizen and spent three years in the U.S. as a visitor. “I told her she’d been illegal for three years, and she was shocked,” he said. “They seem to think that they’re kind of the 51st state and the laws don’t apply to them.”
Others may realize they’re staying illegally but figure the close relationship between Canada and the U.S. means they won’t get caught, Chang said. Some actors and musicians will stay in the U.S. for years, hoping that when they make it big, “the studio will clear it all up,” he said.
In general, it’s true that U.S. authorities won’t seek out Canadians living illegally in the U.S., said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Government data shows that just 353 Canadians were deported from the U.S. in 2017, compared to nearly 130,000 Mexicans.
“People who are Canadian are very unlikely to be targeted,” he said. “It could happen, but it’s going to be really unusual.”
Still, the consequences for overstaying visas can be severe. Those who overstay for more than 180 days can be barred from returning to the U.S. for three years, and those who overstay for longer than a year face a 10-year ban. Even those who exceed their limit by only a few days or weeks could be refused entry to the U.S. when they try to go back.
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In a news release accompanying the report, the Department of Homeland Security said it’s using a “multifaceted approach” to crack down on visa overstays, including improved tracking and vetting of visitors. But Capps said the U.S. faces a major logistical challenge when it comes to making sure visitors leave when they’re supposed to. Unlike many other countries, he said, the U.S. doesn’t have a foolproof exit process for monitoring people as they leave the country, instead relying on records from airlines.
“It’s a huge immigration control problem,” he said. The U.S. is currently testing facial recognition scanners in certain airports in an attempt to close the gap.
Traditionally, the U.S. has not collected information about Canadians leaving the country over land. But a new Canadian bill currently before the Senate would allow Ottawa to share information with the U.S. about Canadians entering and exiting the country, making it easier for the U.S. to pinpoint those overstaying their welcome.
This is the Department of Homeland Security’s third annual report on visa overstays, with Canada topping the list each year. Still, Neil Ruiz, associate director of research with the Pew Research Center, pointed out that the total of number of Canadian visa overstays declined last year, from 119,418 in 2016 to 92,901 in 2017 — a 22 per cent drop.
The report’s numbers are incomplete, as they don’t include those who enter or leave the country over land — only those who travel by air or sea — suggesting the actual number of Canadian overstays could be much higher.
But the Center for Migration Studies has argued that the government is likely overestimating the number of Canadian overstays, because many Canadians may arrive in the U.S. by air but leave over land. “In other words, Canadians would be counted as ‘overstays’ even though they departed by land in disproportionate numbers,” the centre wrote in 2016.
Chang said he’d be surprised to see the U.S. change its approach to Canadian visitors because of the new data.
“I don’t see anything particularly alarming in the numbers that would make them focus their attention on Canada,” he said. “It’s not that bad a situation.”
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