Alhaji Kamara, 28, didn’t enter the United States by hiding in the trunk of a car or trekking through the desert.
The Sierra Leone native arrived legally in 1995 the way millions do every year, with a tourist visa. He later obtained a student visa and was eventually granted temporary protected status because of civil war in his West African homeland.
But when his legal status ended in 2002, Kamara decided to stay put. He said he didn’t feel safe returning home.
“There was nowhere to go back to,” the Orange County resident said. “I decided to follow my education here.”
Kamara, an illegal immigrant now trying to get a green card, is one of an estimated 3.6 million people living in the U.S. who have overstayed or otherwise violated the terms of their visas, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office. They account for more than a quarter of the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Many who overstay their visas eventually apply for green cards or political asylum and then spend years caught up in the immigration system. Others simply disappear with little fear of being arrested or deported because rounding up visa violators has not been a high priority.
But that is changing at a time of increasingly heated national debate over illegal immigration. The Department of Homeland Security announced last month that 165,000 visa violations occur annually and that tracking those cases is part of a new enforcement crackdown.
Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested more than 8,000 visa violators nationwide. In Los Angeles, agents apprehended more than 70 violators in the last 18 months.
Last week, five employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power were arrested after ICE determined they were unauthorized to work in the U.S. Three others were taken into custody earlier. All but one had entered the country legally, including at least two with student and visitor visas, authorities said.
Foreigners can travel to the United States on several types of visas, including tourist, work, student and religious visas, with varying time restrictions. Most visitors from certain countries, including much of Western Europe, don’t require a visa to travel in the U.S. for up to 90 days because of reciprocal agreements among countries.
In 2004, there were nearly 30.8 million nonimmigrant visas issued. They included visas for about 5.3 million temporary workers and business travelers, 22.8 million tourists and 620,000 students, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Getting a temporary visa can be difficult. Foreigners must show strong family and financial ties to their native countries to prove that they will return home when their visas expire, authorities said. They usually pay $100 to apply and an assortment of fees.
Depending on an individual’s circumstances, the screening process can take anywhere from one day to several months. For example, it can be harder to obtain a visa if the applicant is from a country, like North Korea, that does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S. Applicants with criminal records could be barred altogether.
“We are trying very hard to weed out the people who are coming here to stay,” said Marie Sebrechts, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
To better track visitors, the government created a digital screening system in 2004 called US-VISIT to record the arrival and departure of foreigners. The new equipment is used to identify, photograph and fingerprint visitors at airport checkpoints and other locations around the country.
Although the entry portion of the system is up and running at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land ports of entry, the exit portion is operating at only a dozen airports and two seaports. The department hopes to have the system in full operation by the end of the year.
“We are still trying to close off those holes,” said Homeland Security spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman.
“We’re not there yet.”