As many as half of all illegal immigrants in the United States initially entered the country legally, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Approximately 40 percent to 50 percent came across the border using short-term visas or other legal means. Then they simply stayed after their visas expired.
That means 4.5 million to 6 million now-illegal immigrants passed legally through U.S. customs and immigration officials at airports or other established border-crossing points.
Overall, about 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to the center, based in Washington, D.C.
The findings come as members of the Senate continue debate on a comprehensive immigration bill and a week after President Bush urged Congress to authorize more than $1.9 billion to bolster security along the border with Mexico.
The study underscores the need for a comprehensive review of immigration policy, not just enforcement measures, said Roberto Reveles, president of We Are America, a coalition of Arizona community groups advocating immigration reform.
“If we are going to be deploying National Guard troops to the border and think that is going to solve the issue, I’m absolutely sure it’s not,” Reveles said.
Part of Bush’s funding request called for 6,000 Na- tional Guard troops to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with surveillance and logistics for two years while
the Border Patrol increases its ranks.
Improving visa procedures also would be part of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, Reveles said.
Former state senator and Hispanic activist Alfredo Gutierrez said Pew studies tend to skew toward long-term U.S. residents, so the actual number of visa violators probably is less because it was easier to get visas years ago.
Those who apply for visas are required to show U.S. officials that they have economic incentives and family ties that entice them to return to their home countries, Gutierrez said.
“If you talk to people who have been here five years or longer, many arrived on visas. If you talk to people who have been here five years or less, very few of them arrived with visas,” Gutierrez said.
The researchers determined that roughly 4 million to 5.5 million illegal immigrants entered the United States with non-immigrant visas, mostly as tourists or business visitors, then overstayed their permits.
In addition, 250,000 to 500,000 used Border Crossing Cards, documents that allow short visits near the border, then violated their terms of admission.
The researchers concluded 6 million to 7 million crossed the border illegally, evading U.S. Border Patrol agents along the country’s borders with Mexico and Canada and along its coasts.
Tougher U.S. visa policies have restricted the free flow of foreigners across the borders, Gutierrez said, and that in turn has encouraged foreigners to overstay their visas.
Foreign agricultural workers, among others, are reluctant to leave the United States after their seasonal jobs, because they fear they won’t be permitted to return the following season.
“One of the consequences of trying to keep people out is capturing people in,” Gutierrez said.
The federal government has no way of tracking legal foreign visitors who overstay their welcomes, according to the Pew researchers.
The study shows “that there isn’t one single strategy that is going to stop illegal immigration. To really stop it, you need a comprehensive program,” Gutierrez said. Such a program would include visa vigilance, increased border security and sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, he said.