New Forms of Unauthorized Immigration Are Shaping the United States

LOS ANGELES — The thousands of Haitian migrants gathered on the border between the United States and Mexico have created a stark image of the scale of crisis migration in North America. However, it has also raised new questions about the origins and contemporary challenges faced by the United States’ migrant community.

The image of the unauthorized migrant is often thought of as immigrants from Central and South America who cross the border illegally. However, this popular conception of unauthorized immigrants in the United States does not match the reality of current trends.

The Pew Research Center’s 2021 report on unauthorized immigration to the United States outlines recent trends, and contrary to popular belief, the majority of unauthorized immigrants in the United States are not from Mexico. In fact, unauthorized immigrants from the United States’ southern neighbor makes up only 20% of all newly arrived unauthorized immigrants, compared to 63% of unauthorized immigrants who arrived from regions beyond Central America.

Regional trends in unauthorized immigration also extend to methods of arrival. Ninety percent of unauthorized immigrants arriving from outside of Mexico and Central America arrived by overstaying a legally-acquired visa. 

The remaining migrants from these regions often arrive by different, non-traditional means that  put migrants at an even greater risk of harm. Examining these new trends in unauthorized immigration is key to developing policies that are sensitive to the current reality of migration.

Visa Overstays

The Department of Homeland Security’s  most recent Entry/Exit Overstay Report reports that 1.21% of entrants into the United States in 2019 overstayed their authorized period of entry. This growing population makes up a larger share of the unauthorized immigrant population, which remains relatively stable, each successive year.

The Entry/Exit Overstay Report also analyzes the source of these visa overstays. The group with the highest rate of visa overstays is students and exchange visitors, who overstay their visas by a rate of 3.09%. Guest workers also overstay their visas at a similarly high rate, although distinct numbers were not available for this group.

This growing share of the unauthorized migrant population arriving by overstaying their visas is substantially different from those who arrive through unauthorized border crossings. They tend to be from outside Mexico and Central America, with the largest groups coming from Asia and Europe. These types of unauthorized immigrants also tend to integrate differently from those who cross the border without authorization.

Migrants from India, for example, are emblematic of these differences. According to research done by New American Economy, unauthorized immigrants from India make up the third largest group of unauthorized immigrants by national origin, but are the second highest economic contributors across the variables studied (e.g. total household income, spending power and federal, state and local taxes). 

There are several reasons for this high rate of economic contribution. Although there certainly is a large portion of the Indian unauthorized immigrant community who do lower-skilled labor, a disproportionate number are employed in higher-paying fields, such as the tech industry, compared to the other top national origins for unauthorized migrants, like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

These higher-skilled migrants often arrive on temporary visas for guest workers. Upon their visa’s expiration, they stay in the country at their previous occupations. Although immigrants from India and other similar countries have contributed to skilled labor in the United States for many decades, the manner in which they are doing so is shifting. The number of guest workers in higher skilled fields who have overstayed their visas has increased dramatically recently. Over 21,000 Indian nationals who entered under visas in the “other” category, which is largely made up of high-skilled guest workers, overstayed their visas in 2019, up from 8,061 just three years prior.

Although this often leaves these migrants in a more stable position, they are still subject to the other legal and societal barriers. Unauthorized migrants who overstay visas still have few options to remain legally in the United States, and can have difficulty accessing social safety nets and essential services.

Non-traditional Border Crossings

The most unexpected aspect of the incident near Del Rio, Texas was the origin of the migrants: the island nation of Haiti. Although visa overstays have outpaced illegal border crossings to become the primary means of entrance for unauthorized immigrants, illegal border crossings still comprise a large chunk of unauthorized entries. 

However, methods of crossing the border without authorization have changed. Large numbers of unauthorized migrants are travelling long distances over perilous terrain to reach the United States.

The Darien Gap is one of the most dangerous places on Earth. This jungle straddling the border between Panama and Colombia is undeveloped and rife with crime. The “Gap” (so-called because it is the only break in the Pan-American highway, which stretches from northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in southern Argentina) is home to large amounts of drug trafficking, poisonous animals, and armed insurgents. Nonetheless, it has become a bustling corridor for migration to the United States.

Reuters reports that up to 4,000 migrants have crossed the Darien Gap into Panama on their way into the United States. This large sum of migrants tend to be from non-traditional destinations. Haitians make up the majority of the group, but Cubans and people from various African countries are also included. Although these migrants are often fleeing poverty and political strife in their home countries, their paths still seem non-traditional.

The United States is often not these migrants’ primary destinations. Large numbers of Haitians, Cubans, and Africans moved to the relatively prosperous South American nations of Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. However, economic hardship and instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made these destinations sometimes just as inhospitable as the places which these migrants fled. 

As a result, many are embarking on the even more treacherous journey across the Darien Gap and overland through Central America and Mexico.

Policy Recommendations

These new forms of unauthorized immigration are often incongruous with the common perception of what unauthorized migrants typically “look” like. However, they make up a growing part of the United States’ society and economy. Analyzing these new trends provides insights into how immigration policies need to shift in order to accommodate these new developments.

New policies to address visa overstays are already in the works. 

The proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 provides a clear path to permanent residence for those who overstay visas, especially as many have already been vetted and actively paid taxes. In terms of preventing visa overstays, several other solutions have been proposed. Usage of biometric readings upon exit has been proposed, but such a solution is unlikely to prevent visa overstays. Such a policy would facilitate identifying those who overstay a visa, but would do little to stop the visa overstays from occurring. Other measures which seek to remind employers of visa deadlines and expand other workplace enforcement measures would likely perform far better at preventing visa overstays.

For those pursuing nontraditional methods of entry, the United States can expand and improve its efforts to stop the sources of unauthorized migration. By investing in and working to stabilize conditions in those regions which send large numbers of unauthorized immigrants, the United States can reduce the incentive to flee and build a better life for those living in desperation. Such policies are grounded in the situation on the ground and have proven effective to an extent in Central America. Expanding these initiatives to cover a larger range of sources of unauthorized immigration would go a long way to both reducing unauthorized immigration and to build better lives for people living in these regions.

Immigration policy reform, which specifically targets motivations for unauthorized entry and visa overstay, is necessary to augment current immigration enforcement measures. Such policies would include not only investments in economic development, but also in preventing violence and discrimination abroad. Further investments at home to discourage visa overstay, while still helping those who have already built a livelihood in the United States, are also key to avoid future hardships. 

Implementing policy solutions that are sensitive to new developments in unauthorized immigration is necessary to solve the large problems posed by unauthorized immigration.


Molly Miller

Molly Miller is a second-year student majoring in International Relations and the Global Economy. Molly is from Tempe, Arizona and has always been interested in how policy can shape interactions at the international level. Molly has had a strong focus on communications, qualifying twice to the National Speech and Debate Association’s National Tournament. Molly has also been involved in local politics, chairing an official commission of the City of Tempe. Molly is committed to encouraging active engagement with politics at all levels, local and international.