F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines
Week of:
November 12, 2000
3 Million Illegals Overstayed Visas

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

"Entrusting the administration of laws to officials with diplomatic priorities is a recipe for trouble."

"The debate over immigration reform often centers on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its Border Patrol," observes former Foreign Service Officer Nikolai Wenzel. He points out, however, that the consular corps of the U.S. State Department is "really America's first line of immigration enforcement, making the decision to issue or deny visas to millions of applicants each year." Consular officers are responsible for "non-immigrant visas (most commonly 'tourist' visas), immigrant visas (the first step toward obtaining a 'green card'), and anti-fraud activities related to the administration of visa issuances."

In a recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies, Wenzel emphasizes that all tourist visa applicants are legally "ineligible to receive visas until they can prove otherwise. This premise of ineligibility is the exact opposite of the presumption of innocence in the U.S. legal system," he affirms. "A consular officer must ascertain a visa applicant's ties to his country of origin and determine the likelihood that the applicant will not overstay his visa," Wenzel explains. "In order to make this determination, a consular officer relies on the applicant's answers to a few cursory questions during a brief interview, knowledge of the economic and social conditions in the applicant's country, the applicant's supporting documents -- and intuition. The interviewing officer will issue the visa," he comments, "if he is convinced that the applicant's ties to his home country necessitate his return (and if the applicant passes a computerized background check). Otherwise, the officer will deny the visa."

Wenzel reports that "aliens who enter legally but overstay their visas constitute 40 to 50 percent of the estimated illegal alien population in the United States. In other words, almost half of the estimated six million illegal residents now in the United States entered the country on (putatively) non-immigrant visas issued at U.S. consulates abroad."

Wenzel acknowledges that "applicants throughout the world may use fraudulent means to obtain visas." He worries that "the State Department's priority on maintaining positive bilateral relations diminishes its ability to enforce immigration law." Wenzel emphasizes that "the law prohibits issuance of a visa to an alien likely, in the opinion of the interviewing officer, to become a public charge. In practice," he notes, "consular officers routinely misapply this provision and issue visas to applicants whose sponsors are already living well below the poverty line, before the added burden of newcomers."

Wenzel laments that "the penalty for willful misrepresentation before a U.S. government official is often a slap on the wrist. Compare this," he suggests, "with the penalty for a misrepresentation to, say, the IRS, and one begins to realize the distortion of U.S. immigration law as administered by the State Department. One should not be surprised that aliens ignore U.S. immigration law," Wenzel counsels, "given that the agency responsible for administering those laws sends the message that a serious violation of the law will usually be reduced to a mere administrative obstacle. It is difficult to blame immigrants who cheat the system," he argues, "as they are reacting to incentives placing bureaucratic process above legal principle."

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