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VisasTravel association to DHS: Tell Congress about visa overstays before tourism is restricted

Published 12 January 2016

The U.S. Travel Association is urging DHS to address people who stay overstay the length of their approved visas before placing new restrictions on visa waiver programs that are designed to boost U.S. tourism. “We should not even begin to discuss further improvements to visa security without much-needed data from the Department of Homeland Security on visa overstays,” the association says.

The U.S. Travel Association is urging DHS to address people who stay overstay the length of their approved visas before placing new restrictions on visa waiver programs that are designed to boost U.S. tourism.

“We should not even begin to discuss further improvements to visa security without much-needed data from the Department of Homeland Security on visa overstays,” the association says.

In a Monday blog post on its Web site, the association notes that in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Congress has focused its attention to the security of U.S. visa programs. The association notes, however, that a recent New York Times story points out a knowledge gap which is hampering effective discussion of better visa security: the government does not provide the public with accurate information on how many foreign visitors actually overstay their visas.

Congress has required the release of this information for several decades. DHS, however, has not provided breakdowns by country or type of visa. The association insists that having an accurate view of visa compliance is vital for further improvements to visa security and immigration enforcement.

Why has the data not been released? The Times cites DHS’s lack of confidence in the quality of the data they already collect on who enters and exits the United States. The association notes that this puzzling, since DHS collects biographic information — names, passport numbers, document issuance dates, and other information given to the transportation carrier — on 100 percent of visitors who enter and exit the United States, and already requires extensive biometric information upon entry into the United States.

Expanding biometric data collection is a worthwhile discussion in a number of security contexts, the association says, although the Congressional proponents of more thorough collection have yet to offer a solution to the prohibitive costs entailed. Biometrics are certainly a ”nice-to-have” with regard to tracking overstays specifically, but many experts say that the biographic data already available is sufficient for the purpose of calculating accurate overstay figures.

And yet, since 1994, federal agencies have not provided a new report to Congress on visa overstays. There is also no accurate information to distinguish between those who leave perhaps weeks or months late, and those who simply remain in the U.S. indefinitely.

The travel association says that right now, the best information on visa overstays we have from DHS are estimates. For example, DHS has said in Congressional testimony that the overstay rate of the twenty million plus international travelers who arrive in the United States from allied countries under the VWP is around 1 percent. The dearth of hard numbers otherwise is noted by the Times,  which points to a report from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service that puts the overall visa overstay rate at nearly 40 percent. However, that report was released in 1997 before the post-9/11 enforcement programs were put in place, resulting in tighter scrutiny of visitors and a larger interior enforcement effort.

In the past three years DHS has promised Congress repeatedly that the department would provide a report on visa overstays. The association says that the report has yet to be produces – and that the delays must end. “If overstays from a particular country, or in a particular visa category, are problematic, let’s tackle that situation,” the travel association says. “But if, for instance, the VWP overstay level is indeed one percent, that figure would represent an excellent compliance record that should shape policies around expanding or altering the VWP.”

One result of all these delays is that congressional calls for action on visa programs — understandable against the current global security landscape — are not being guided by empirical data. “That’s the first ingredient in the recipe for poor policymaking, and could help pave the way for the uninformed implementation of measures that cripple valuable travel policies rather than strengthen them,” the association says. “Safety is vital to travel, and America must also remain a welcoming place for international visitors, for the sake of our economy and our diplomatic relations. DHS needs to finally release this visa overstay data so that Congress can have the important discussion of visa security informed by all the pertinent facts,” the U.S. Travel Association concludes.