Securing All Our Borders

April 23rd, 2013

As we debate immigration reform, a key element will be determining how to secure United States’ borders.

Most people assume border security is completely tied to protecting the tremendous land borders we share with Mexico and Canada.  The practicality of securing these vast areas is daunting but unless we can effectively manage this task, it is likely that we’ll only encourage further illegal immigration by these means.

When our current immigration laws were enacted, the “amnesty” granted by President Reagan and Congress at the time was clearly advertised as a one-time event since border security would become a top priority.  I don’t think anyone can argue with a straight face that we didn’t utterly fail in this regard.

As we debate the future of our immigration laws, the public needs to be well aware of how immigration really works in this country, not just what politicians and pundits want us to focus on.

For example, I practiced immigration law in the 1990s.  At that time, immigration attorneys openly observed that illegal immigration primarily came from visa overstays and not from people sneaking across the border.  That doesn’t mean that the latter isn’t a huge problem, because it is, but it also fails to ignore a potentially bigger problem.

So what is a “visa overstay”?  Simply stated, it’s someone who comes to our country on a visa like a tourist visa or student visa and then never leaves.  Instead, that individual takes a job and just blends into society.  Most of these individuals speak English quite well and are fairly well educated.

You may wonder why they don’t just get a visa to stay legally.  I’d say a lot of these people are young people who are eager to get on with their lives.  Unfortunately, our immigration system is not kind to the impatient. Unless an individual has a close family member legally in the United States, a qualified job available to him, or she just won Best Actress at the Academy Awards or an Olympic gold medal (and even then she needs to prove she’s a bit more accomplished than that), there will be a significant wait.

On top of meeting certain visa categories, we have a system of visa availability based on country of national origin.  The theory is that we don’t want to discriminate in favor of admitting one group of people over another.  Because of that, people of certain ethnicity can wait years until their number comes up.  We do throw everyone a little bone on this system with a “lottery.”  If you win the lottery, you can jump ahead of the line.

Here’s the irony.  We have this incredibly complex system of carefully picking and choosing who can come in and because 11 million people decided they couldn’t deal with that system we’re now prepared to throw up our hands and let them all in. It’s kind of like a crowd showing up at Yankee Stadium without tickets to the World Series and just rushing the gates.  Rather than sort it all out, it’s easier to just let them stay and watch the game, albeit it in extremely crowded conditions.

If we’re going to do that with immigration, we might as well drop all this pretense of jobs and countries of national origin and just simplify it where anyone who can get here can stay if they just jump through certain hoops. I don’t support that idea, but it’s certainly the only way to be “fair” if we’re now going to legally admit people who illegally crossed the border or overstayed their “vacation.”

I say this as someone who helped people follow all the rules and come in legally.  These people were heavily scrutinized and required the patience of Job to get through the process but they were determined to do it the right way. I haven’t talked to any of these people since, but I do wonder what they think about all of this.

Currently, it’s estimated that 40% of the 11 million illegal immigrants are visa overstays, people who knew that if you came in as a tourist no one will seriously kick you out after six months unless they accidently stumbled upon you and then that’s just your “dumb luck.” Also, of concern, many of the 911 hijackers were individuals who overstayed their student visas.

I’ll be very curious to see what’s in this proposed immigration bill.  If it doesn’t include a serious program for securing the border and following entries and exits more closely, we will not come anywhere close to ending the problem in the future.