In Phoenix earlier this week—as on his official website—Donald Trump promised “enhanced penalties for overstaying a visa. Millions of people come to the United States on temporary visas,” he claims, “but refuse to leave.” Trump’s solution? “Completion of a visa tracking system.”
Each year, 45 million nonimmigrant visitors come to these shores. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 1.17 percent of them overstay their visas. So, for starters, Trump’s “enhanced penalties” are a solution is search of a problem. Still, the unintended consequences would be onerous.
International passengers expect delays when entering the United States while Customs and Immigration officials vet each traveler. If you like delays upon arrival—and if Trump’s “enhancements” are enacted—you’d love the delays prior to departure. Because we can’t be sure whether visiting aliens have entered and then departed the U.S., we have to count them when they leave as carefully as we counted them when they arrived. And the count takes time.
Nor is it just the interminable departure delays. Think, too, of the billions spent renovating the departure facilities of international ports and airports, and the millions spent doubling Customs and Immigration capacities.
And remember, too, there would be no special lanes for citizens, through which aliens might wander—or allege that they wandered. All would be counted; when leaving these shores, on business or for pleasure, Americans, too, would need to have their documents at the ready. Would the Montana Trumpets among them like that?
But counting alien heads while coming and going won’t “complete” the “visa tracking system.” Monitoring their whereabouts while in the U.S. would also be necessary. Americans who travel internationally are aware of the process: when checking into a hotel in Country X, you provide documentation that the hotel can share with the authorities: Who are you? What is your status in Country X? Where were you last night? Where will you be tomorrow night?
And it’s not just the international visitors to Country X that are asked. Country X nationals are also obliged. How else would an innkeeper keep an alien from pretending to be a citizen?
Suddenly a system would be in place that lets the authorities know where everyone is all the time. Suddenly the FBI or Homeland Security would know as much about your whereabouts as the TSA knows about the contents of your luggage. Would Montana Trumpets like that?
All of which raises the unpleasant fact that very few Americans possess—and even fewer carry—dependable proof of their citizenship. If the sheriff—or an innkeeper—asks for proof of your nationality, what do you have in your pocket or purse? You might produce a birth certificate … if you knew where it was. You might produce a driver’s license but any alien who drives can do that. If you’re a soldier you might produce military identification but such things are also issued to non-Americans who serve. A U.S. passport would suffice, but two Americans in three don’t have a passport and the other one seldom carries it.
Proof of nationality is a dilemma aggravated by every ratcheting of the immigration dilemma. Its solution has been accepted by most industrialized nations and many developing nations beyond American borders: it is a national ID system that validates the bona fides of each American citizen and issues a national identity card accordingly. Many commentators applaud the idea, pointing to a variety of benefits. But, realistically, a society that won’t register its guns will not happily register each other. Would Montana Trumpets like that?
So when Donald Trump advocates “completion of a visa tracking system,” it’s really nothing more than sound and fury signifying nothing. Put differently, headlines, soundbites and 140-character Tweets are often provocative but seldom informative. Invariably missing in action are the unintended consequences of the scheme on offer.
Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Vienna and in Red Lodge.