Illegal Immigration: Visa Violators Swept Up In Widening Dragnet
Mexicans and other Latin Americans, who often sneak into the U.S. on foot, are the face of today's rancorous debate over illegal immigration. But increasingly, other groups of undocumented immigrants -- known as "OTMs," or "other than Mexicans" within the Department of Homeland Security -- are being swept up, too.
Most came to the U.S. on planes, with valid visas and passports from Ireland, India, Poland or elsewhere. They stayed in the country after those visas expired, and eluded detection by immigration authorities as they went about their lives, often laying down roots in their new communities. The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that up to 45% of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are visa overstayers. Europeans account for 400,000 of them.
In recent years, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has implemented a new strategy to identify people who are here illegally: Get local police to nab them on an unrelated offense, such as a traffic infraction.
Historically, immigration enforcement has been the purview of federal agents posted primarily at ports of entry and border areas. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government began expanding the role of local police in immigration enforcement. Initially, the goal was to help find potential terrorists. As the program has expanded, more immigrants are being turned in.
State and local law-enforcement officers can in many instances determine with a quick computer search or phone call whether a person stopped for a traffic violation or arrested for a crime has violated immigration law. If a match is confirmed, ICE instructs the police officer to detain the person until an agent can take custody.
Supporters of the latest crackdown say it is long overdue. They say many illegal immigrants, including visa overstayers, have been given a free pass by the government, thanks to lax enforcement. "If in the normal course of duty, police come across somebody they have reason to believe is in the country illegally, they ought to cooperate with immigration authorities," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group that calls for curbing all illegal immigration. "They might not be a child molester, but they are here illegally."
ICE says it lacks the manpower to go after the hundreds of thousands of people who are here illegally, so it prioritizes going after people with criminal records and employers who hire undocumented workers. Even when it has the address of someone who has evaded deportation . . . it says it doesn't necessarily make an arrest. The intensified coordination between federal agents and local police thus has helped fill a gap.
Critics say the federal government is diverting local police from basic priorities, like community safety, to arrest immigrants who usually don't pose a security threat. The strategy can also lead to ethnic profiling, they say, because police officers might be more likely to run checks on people who have accents or who they think look foreign.