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The debate over illegal immigration in America most often centers on the unlawful crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.
President Trump frequently stokes that debate as he did with this tweet in June 2018: "We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country."
But Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently claimed there’s another factor — visa overstays — that accounts for half of the people in the country illegally.
"Half of everyone that’s here illegally (in the US) came here legally on a visa and have overstayed their visa," McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, said at a Public Policy Institute of California event in Sacramento on Aug. 15, 2018.
McCarthy made his claim at a Public Policy Institute of California event in Sacramento in August 2018.
That’s not to say McCarthy, a close Trump ally, was breaking with the president’s hardline immigration stance. He told the crowd he supports Trump’s border wall and opposes sanctuary cities.
PolitiFact and its affiliates have fact-checked statements similar to McCarthy’s on visa overstays in the past.
They’ve found those statements are generally correct. But they’ve also noted that the supporting evidence is now somewhat dated.
For this fact check, we examined whether current available data support McCarthy’s claim.
Past fact-checks, including one by PolitiFact Virginia in 2016, have relied on a 2006 Pew Research Center report. It estimated "nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally through a port of entry such as an airport or a border crossing point where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials."
Each year, the United States grants thousands of temporary visas for foreign students, tourists and workers. They can last from a few weeks to several years.
The Pew report put the share of visa overstayers at "as much as 45 percent of the total unauthorized migrant population." The study, however, used data more than two decades old from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency that doesn’t exist anymore and whose functions were folded into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"The problem is that neither the INS nor its successor, the Department of Homeland Security, have provided updated statistics on the percentage of undocumented immigrants who overstayed visas since that aging study," PolitiFact Virginia reported in 2016.
More recent data
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told us in an email that recent DHS reports include data limited to foreign visitors who arrived by air and sea crossings, but not by land.
"They do not tell you anything about the full population of overstays," she wrote.
She said a 2017 study by the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, is more helpful.
That report estimated visa overstays in 2014 accounted for 42 percent of the total undocumented population, or about 4.5 million people. It also projected that overstays made up about two-thirds of the total number of people who became unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. that year.
McCarthy’s claim of "half" is not far from the 42 percent figure.
Asked to support the congressman’s statement, McCarthy’s spokesman pointed to a recent article by The Washington Post that cited the Center for Migration Studies report.
The center’s report said its figures "are based primarily on detailed estimates of the undocumented population in 2014 compiled by (the Center for Migration Studies) and estimates of overstays for 2015 derived by DHS."
Share of overstays on the rise?
Given the past decade’s dramatic and well-documented decline in illegal Southern border crossings, there’s a strong case that visa overstayers now account for a larger share of the overall total of unauthorized immigrants.
In April, we rated ‘True,’ Gov. Jerry Brown’s claim in a letter to the Trump administration that "immigrant apprehensions on the border last year were as low as they’ve been in nearly 50 years."
Brown’s office cited U.S. Border Patrol figures showing nearly 304,000 arrests in 2017 across the borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The previous low was just under 264,000 in 1971.
Arrest totals along the Southern border reached well over 1 million annually in the 1980s and 1990s. They peaked at 1.64 million in 2000.
Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, told PolitiFact Virginia in 2016 that while estimates of undocumented immigrants have been stable since 2007, the number of people entering illegally across the southwestern U.S. border has "collapsed."
That means that the proportion of those overstaying their visas likely is on the rise, he said in 2016.
We asked Nowrasteh whether that still holds true in 2018.
"Yes, about half of illegal immigrants currently are overstays," he told us by email.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently claimed "Half of everyone that’s here illegally (in the US) came here legally on a visa and have overstayed their visa."
Past fact checks found this statement and ones like it are generally correct. But they cautioned that the claims mainly rely on figures from a 2006 report, which used federal immigration data from the mid-1990s.
More recent Department of Homeland Security reports don’t offer the full picture of foreign visitors who arrived on visas.
A 2017 report by the Center for Migration Studies, however, gives a more current look at visa overstays. It shows McCarthy’s claim, while it should have been couched as an estimate rather than a statement of fact, is on the right track.
It projects overstayers were 42 percent, or nearly half, of the country’s undocumented population in 2014.
Finally, with the decline in illegal border crossings, it’s fair to estimate that visa overstayers now account for an increasing share of the country’s undocumented population.
We rate McCarthy’s statement Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Kevin McCarthy, speech, Aug. 15, 2018
Matt Sparks, spokesman for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, email exchange Aug. 23, 2018
Sarah Pierce, policy analyst, Migration Policy Institute, email exchange Aug. 20
Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute
Pew Research Center, "Modes of entry for the unauthorized immigrants," May 22, 2006.
Center for Migration Studies, "The 2,000 Mile Wall in Search of a Purpose," 2017
PolitiFact Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli says half of illegal immigrants have overstayed visas, May 16, 2018
PolitiFact Virginia, "Ted Cruz says 40 percent of illegal immigrants are ‘people coming legally on visas and overstaying their visas,’" Dec. 17, 2015.
PolitiFact Texas, "Visa overstayers comprise 38 percent to 50 percent of unauthorized U.S. residents, per 2006 calculations," April 28, 2014.
PolitiFact Texas, "John Carter claim that 40 percent of nation’s illegal residents came by plane and overstayed visas draws on 2006 estimate," Sept. 6, 2013.
PolitiFact Florida, "Rubio says 40% of illegal immigrants stayed in the U.S. after their visas expired," July 29, 2015.
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