03:38 - Source: CNN
Trump sharpens immigration rhetoric in Texas

Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

First, they came for the asylees and the refugees. Then they came for the children at the southern border. And now they are coming for the visa overstays. In a memorandum issued on April 22, President Donald Trump ordered the Department of State to work with governments with overstay rates of more than 10%, in an effort to dramatically reduce those numbers. Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been tasked with reporting back to the President in four months with recommendations, the memorandum indicates that one solution could be limiting or even suspending visas for people from countries with high overstay rates.

Rafia Zakaria

But action directed at overstays has been a long time coming. In nearly every debate centered around Trump’s border wall, lawmakers from both sides have pointed to visa overstays as the “real” problem. Again and again, it has been noted that close to 45% of those present in the country illegally enter the country legally and then overstay their visas. There is some truth to this. According to the last figures published by the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, there were 701,900 overstays on non-immigrant visas. While this seems like a large number, it should be considered in light of the fact that it amounts to only 1.33% of all travelers to the country.

The planned Trump crackdown, however, does not target all overstays, nor does it punish all countries with high rates of overstays equally. The sleight of hand lies in the language that the administration is using to construct its case. The presidential memorandum states: “twenty countries have overstay rates of more than 10 percent, some with rates as high as 20, 30 or 40 percent.” In labeling offending countries based on the percentage of overstays – rather than the total number of overstays – the Trump administration has created a mechanism via which it can punish travelers from largely poor African countries (South Sudan, Chad, Djibouti, Liberia and Somalia, to name a few), instead of countries with the highest number of offenders (Canada).

For perspective, in 2017, Chad had 149 people overstay their B1/B2 business visas – out of 611 expected departures – for a rate of 24.39%. Meanwhile, Canada, in contrast, had 96,911 people overstay their B1/B2 visa. But because that was based on a total of 8,748,750 expected departures, it only amounted to 1.11%. The disparity means that a handful of overstays from Chad could preclude all applicants from a country from traveling to the United States, while thousands of overstaying Canadians might not be punished at all.

Another problematic punishment alluded to in the memorandum concerns the use of “admission bonds,” which requires the handing over of collateral (such as a large sum of money) that would only be returned if the person departs the US during the legal limit. As with the calculation of overstays, this seemingly innocuous directive would have a disparate impact on travelers from the low-income countries, who would find themselves unable to meet the steep financial requirements of posting such “admission bonds.” In many ways, the admissions bond system appears to be much like the bail bond system in US criminal law, except for the small detail that travelers have not been accused of a crime and are simply wanting to visit America.

Even travelers from countries that are not affected could well be deterred from visiting the United States – given the continued implementation of the Trump administration directives aimed at severely restricting immigration in all forms. Some evidence of this possibility can be found in the fact that tourism to the United States slumped in the beginning of 2017, when President Trump took office and instituted the slew of restrictive policies, such as the travel ban. And though tourism picked up in 2018, it has yet to return to 2016 levels.

One of the ways that Customs and Border Protection wants to track visa overstays is through the use of facial recognition technology to monitor departures from United States airports and pick out visa overstays. But this implicates privacy and surveillance concerns for US citizens who are unlikely to know that they have the option to refuse or even that their data is being collected. Currently, 15 US airports already use facial recognition technology to track passengers, and CBP is seeking to expand this program – such that it is deployed at every single airport in the country.

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    Civil liberties advocates have expressed their concern at this plan being rushed through to implementation, noting that there are no federal laws that currently limit or create parameters for the use of data gleaned from facial recognition technology. Given that facial recognition permits identification and monitoring of travelers by race and national origin (and given that the Trump administration has already shown a proclivity toward punishing black and brown travelers), the widespread collection of such data creates a minefield for potential misuse.

    This latest spate of proposed changes targeting overstays – most likely to affect citizens from African countries (some of which the President included in his list of “shithole countries”) – paints a particular picture of who the Trump administration considers admissible and who it wishes to exclude. The poor, the black and the brown seem to have no place in the Trump administration’s quest for a whiter, more monolithic America.