What Can We Do About Visa Overstayers?

by Reihan Salam

Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest Bloomberg View column sketches an alternative immigration reform measure that, among other things:

(a) offers unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minor children a path to citizenship;

(b) strengthens immigration enforcement, with an emphasis on visa overstayers;

(c) and allows for an increase in skilled immigration while cutting back on immigration that aims to reunite extended families.

Ramesh’s bill would not include a guest worker program, and it would not grant a path to legalization or citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults. But there would be an implicit agreement that if immigration enforcement proves successful, a broader amnesty for unauthorized immigrants is a possibility. (Josh Barro has argued that an informal deal along these lines could prove successful.) I see Ramesh’s proposal as an enormous improvement over the Senate immigration bill, and I hope that the House embraces it as a starting point. 

Yet I am most interested in how we might address the problem of visa overstayers. One model that I find intriguing, yet which might prove a problematic barrier to commerce and a source of resentment, would be a system in which residents of various countries would be obligated to pay visa bonds that would vary according to individual characteristics. That is, while visitors from some countries are unlikely to become visa overstayers, visitors from other countries are far more likely to do so. Moreover, among visitors from a given country, some might pose more of an overstaying risk than others. Sliding-scale visa bonds would account for these differences. Theresa May, Britain’s Home Secretary, has proposed a visa bond pilot program targeting “high-risk” individuals from six countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana and Sri Lanka), which has attracted strong criticism. The most compelling criticism, albeit a difficult one to evaluate, is that a visa bond risks creating an “a fine is a price” dynamic. Visitors might decide that once they’ve paid the visa bond, they are essentially welcome to stay. This, of course, would defeat the purpose of the visa bond. There are other visa bond models to pursue, e.g., the bond might escalate over time (though this would be difficult to put into practice, and it doesn’t deal with the “a fine is a price” issue), the U.S. government might demand recompense from the home country of the visa overstayers (but it is hard to imagine other countries cooperating with U.S. authorities in this regard), visitors might need to identify sponsors (either individuals or organizations) who will be on the hook financially for visa overstayers, etc., but the problem is fundamentally very hard to solve.  

And then there is the fact that a visa bond contradicts another important U.S. economic policy goal, namely increasing international tourism, an industry that has enormous potential for growth. The World Tourism Organization has found that the U.S. share of global travel and tourism spending has declined from 17.5 percent to 11.2 percent since 2000, a response both to the emergence of other attractive tourist destinations around the world and, perhaps, to a post-9/11 tightening of U.S. borders. Some countries, like China and Brazil, are a source of tourist dollars spent by affluent travelers and of visa overstayers, and threading the needle of not offending the former while deterring the latter is a difficult proposition. 

I’m a fan of Jacob Vigdor’s “assimilation bond” — a fee that immigrants would pay on arriving in the country, yet which would be (partially) paid back in increments in the form of a federal tax credit as they earn income — but one wonders how it would interact with the visa program. It would be impractical to require an assimilation bond of all visitors, whether they intend to settle in the U.S. or not, as doing so would greatly reduce travel and tourism expenditures. But creating a wedge between tourist visas and assimilation bonds will presumably give visa overstayers an advantage over those who go through appropriate legal channels to work and settle in the U.S. I’d be eager to read any bright ideas.


The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.