Archive for December 2009

How to handle overstays

Our government just announced that the budget for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased by several billion dollars, mostly to hire new agents. One of DHS’ tasks involves tracking all people who enter the U.S. to see if and when they depart. Those programs are not targeted against terrorists or criminals; rather they are widespread and cover everyone who enters this country.

There are clearly some in our government and in Congress who are obsessed with knowing how many people enter the country and do not leave. The estimated number of those who are currently undocumented in the U.S. averages about 12 million, out of which about 30-40% came legally but overstayed. That means that there are about 4 to 5 million foreigners who entered our country legally but have not left. Assuming that the number of new undocumented aliens increases by approximately 1 million per year, then about 300,000 of those every year are foreigners who enter legally but stay.

The task of finding all those millions seems to be of critical importance to some in our society. Some of our officials, even some senators, urge our DHS to identify those persons. What nobody really discusses is what to do about them once we know who and where they are.

Leaving aside the several million who are here already and have not left, for those who enter legally and do not leave at the end of their visits, which are estimated at about 300,000 annually, it will require literally an army of police officers and government agents to try to find them. Chances are many would have changed their place of stay since they typically become mobile after entering this country. Trying to locate them will require millions of new hires at our tax payers’ expense.

The real question is: Why do we care where they are and what they are doing? Other than the need for control, why do we care? And even if we get to them, most of them will have reasons for why they overstayed. Not only will we have to find them but we will have to detain, process them at immigration court, etc. Literally to be able to truly handle them we need to devote much of our resources to this task. This sounds silly. The U.S. has existed for over 200 years and has become a great country without the need to do this kind of fanatical surveillance on others, even if they are out of status in this country.

It appears to me that a far more intelligent way to handle this is to impose a financial penalty that would grow in time for those who enter legally but overstay. For example, the penalty can be $10 per day, or a couple hundred dollars per month. Thus, as an example, if someone enters our country legally but overstays for ten years and then married an American citizen and seeks a Green Card, we can at that time present them with a bill to pay approximately $30,000 for their overstay. Most of those who are here out of status want some way to cure their situation and adjust their status. Letting them know there will be a financial price to pay at the end, that would increase with time, would be the best possible motive for them to leave. And if they need to apply again in the future, the U.S. consulate will be aware of their overstay and can charge them the required penalty before issuing any other visas.

This solution will alleviate the need for us to have an army of agents costing tax payers tens of billions of dollars, and by creating a financial incentive for a foreign national not to overstay, we will at the same time generate substantial revenue from foreign nationals who do stay. The savings that we make and the revenues we get could be in the tens of billions of dollars that we can put to more practical, resourceful or wise use than fanatical surveillance of other human beings.

This is not to say that we should not monitor those that have characteristics that worry us or that may reflect an inclination towards terrorism or criminality. However, I do think that when we cast the net too wide, we lose the ability to focus on what really matters. When we check everybody and anybody and when we try to trace everybody without regard to the seriousness of their presence here, we simply are wasting resources that could be better be used to track those who really mean us harm. We need to replace the mindset of wide net paradigm with a more focused, intelligent one. As to the rest of the overstaying population, which is the harmless majority, they will pay their dues whenever they need to adjust or whenever they need to return to this country after they leave. Such system would preserve our security without wasting so much of our resources.

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