INS targets Mexico border while visa overstays rise Latino groups say action is racially motivated

November 15, 1998|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

DALLAS -- At least 40 percent of the noncitizens who stay in the United States illegally -- and perhaps more than half -- didn't sneak across the border.

They obtained a visa, promised to leave by a certain date, and then didn't.

Belying common stereotypes of "illegal aliens," they are ethnically diverse and often well-educated. Typically, federal authorities have no idea where they are.

Most "visa overstays" are in the United States for work. But a few have been implicated in high-profile criminal and terrorist cases, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a 1997 plot to bomb New York's subways.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service acknowledges that visa overstays are a problem, but most of its resources are focused on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 1996, Congress authorized the INS to hire 300 investigators to help seek out visa overstays. To date, those positions are unfilled.

At the same time, Congress authorized the INS to develop an "entry-exit" computer system that would track when visa holders enter and leave the United States. Last month, Congress extended by 2 1/2 years the INS deadline to have the system working.

Some INS officials blame Congress in part for not funding its own mandates.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House Subcommittee on Immigration, complains that the agency's budget has doubled in the past five years and he hasn't seen commensurate results.

The INS is sometimes portrayed as an agency facing an overwhelming task. Nearly 500 million foreigners and U.S. citizens enter this country every year, and trying to monitor them is not a simple matter.

Every year, more than 1 million people are caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally; INS officials warn that taking away resources there would encourage more to cross.

For now, the INS is focused on trying to "plug" illegal entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the agency has plans to devote more resources on enforcement beyond the border.

Visa overstays were described as a "disturbing and persistent problem" in a recent report by the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general.

Groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza complain that the government's apparent preoccupation with mostly Hispanic border-crossers, and lack of interest in the more ethnically diverse visa overstays, is racially motivated.

In the U.S. interior, the INS apprehends many more Hispanic border-crossers than visa overstays.

INS enforcement "inherently has a bias against people who 'look' foreign and people who tend to be low-skilled," said Joel Najar, immigration policy analyst for La Raza.

With "day laborers hanging around on the corner, the assumption is that they're immigrants and they're undocumented."

On the issue of undocumented immigration, he said, "you don't hear about the Chinese student who's here on a student visa and overstays because of a job offer. You don't hear about the Indian temporary high-tech worker who is here on a three-year visa, but is trying to find a way to stay permanently and overstays."

Reasons other than racial discrimination may explain the INS enforcement patterns. Catching noncitizens trying to cross the border illegally is easier. Visa overstays tend to be more dispersed -- and harder to find.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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