Opinion: Trump doesn’t seem to understand anything about illegal immigration

President Trump's focus on heightening and expanding the border walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border shows he doesn't understand the problem.
(Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty Images)

You have to like the timing. As the partial government shutdown continues and a fresh caravan of the desperate moves from Honduras into Guatemala, a new report reminds the nation that President Trump really has no clue about what’s going on with illegal immigration in the U.S.

The Center for Migration Studies reports that visa overstays in 2017 accounted for more people living in the U.S. without permission than did people who slipped across the border. More significantly, it’s not a new trend but a new normal.

“For the past 10 years, the primary mode of entry to the undocumented population has been to overstay temporary visas,” the report said, adding: “Visa overstays have significantly exceeded illegal border crossings during each of the last seven years.”

If you’re wondering how lengthening and heightening existing walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border addresses that problem, you’re not alone.

The government knows much of this. Its annual visa-overstay report last year said more than 607,000 people of the 52.7 million people who entered the country legally didn’t leave when they were supposed to, a rate of 1.15% (this doesn’t include folks who overstayed but left before the end of the year). That was the second year in a row overstays surpassed 600,000 people, and it’s based primarily on passenger manifests for planes and ships.


Tracking folks who depart the country at ground border crossings is sporadic, at best, in large part because the ports of entry were designed to handle incoming traffic, not outgoing. The government gets some data from Canada on third-country citizens crossing north from the U.S., and from Mexico on Mexican nationals who return to that country, but that’s about it.

Still, the vast majority of entries and departures are through airports and seaports. And the rate of overstays is pretty low, but the total number of overstays is substantial when matched against the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without permission – two-thirds of whom have been here for more than a decade. And just in case it isn’t obvious, people still here when their visas expire slip into undocumented status and are subject to deportation.

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If you’re wondering how lengthening and heightening existing walls and fences along the U.S.-Mexico border addresses that problem, you’re not alone.

To its credit, the Trump administration has asked Congress to complete an exit-entry system that uses biometric data to track visitors crossing the border in both directions, which would make it easier to figure out who has left and who remains in the country without permission.

But it doesn’t do much for tracking those folks down.

Meanwhile, what we get mostly from Trump is froth and bluster about a non-existent crisis over people entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico. Apprehensions at the southwest border have been trending steadily downward for years from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to nearly 467,000 last year – which itself was a slight increase over the previous year, propelled by a surge in families fleeing violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Trump’s focus is not on the governmental problem of fixing the immigration system, or even necessarily on doing what Americans want — some 58% of Americans oppose substantially expanding the border wall. He’s playing to the immigration hard-liners in his fold, regardless of the damage and waste it causes.