It doesn’t get much attention, but 30 – 40 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. entered the country legally. Some come as tourists. Others arrive here with a student or work visa.
A man I’ll call "Will" came to Los Angeles from Canada.
The last time he crossed the border, Will told the U.S. official he was just coming to Seattle to shop for the weekend. “So I basically entered the country on a lie.”
He eventually applied for – and got – a visa to work legally for a music company in LA. Then, the music industry tanked. Will lost his job and his visa.
Now 50-years-old, Will has lived in LA for half of his life. Much of that time, he’s worked under the table.
“In conversation, I’ll kind of jokingly say, ‘Well, I’m an illegal alien,’” says Will. “And people are always shocked because I don’t look or sound like an illegal alien.”
He’s white, with a medium build and sandy-brown hair. And even though he may not look the part, he does represent so-called "illegal aliens."
At least a third of the 10 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. didn’t sneak across the border. Many of them flew here in an airplane with completely legitimate papers.
But it’s what happens next that concerns Republican Congressman Lou Barletta.
“They come on a visa. The visa expires and they simply don’t go home. They blend in to the interior of the country and we can’t find them,” says Barletta.
Those folks are known as ‘visa overstays.’
Will, the Canadian, is one of them. In the underground economy, he sometimes works alongside undocumented Latinos.
“As a handyman, I do work in houses that are under construction and I see how Mexicans are treated and how they’re paid. And I am not treated that way, even though I am just as undocumented as they are,” says Will.
Americans simply aren’t on the lookout for Canadians because they’re not seen as an economic threat.
Will says, “Canada has such a high standard of living. Much higher than it is in America. And most people in Canada have no desire to come here.”
But when Canadians do come here for work, Will says, they don’t necessarily have to start at the bottom. “I don’t see many Canadians who come here and work as busboys.”
Canadians are hardly alone. Educated professionals from around the world work in the U.S. without official authorization.
Congressman Barletta sees this flaw in the immigration system as a threat to national security - and job security.
“They may not be looking for an entry level job. They may be looking for much different jobs. And some of them even high tech jobs,” says Barletta.
Barletta has introduced a bill that would make it a crime to stay in the country after a visa expires.
In terms of any broader immigration reform, Congressman Barletta won’t support any legislation that doesn’t address visa overstays. He says, “It’s a non-starter for me.”
One solution involves the collection of biometric data from foreign visitors. At airports, we collect the biometric data on the way in. But not on the way out. That means there is no reliable calculation for the number of people who may have overstayed their visas.
“To do biometrics on departure would require implementation of some sort of infrastructure at all of our ports of entry – air, sea and land – that simply doesn’t exist yet,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown with the Bipartisan Policy Center, which recently studied the issue.
That new infrastructure would cost taxpayers north of $3 billion; money that hasn’t been allocated. So the U.S. is still a long way from being able to identify and track down visa overstays.
And that’s lucky for Will, the Canadian, living in LA. At home, Will plays the piano for an audience of one – his dog. It seems like a carefree existence.
But it could all be taken away. And after 25 years here, LA is the only home Will knows.
“I have nothing in Canada. I have no place to go,” says Will. “It would be just like going to another country and starting over. I have nightmares about it.”
Will is trapped in immigration limbo. If he ever returned to Canada, he would not be allowed back into the U.S. He’s already told his mother that he can’t return, even if she gets sick.
“I said, ‘You know, if something happens, I can’t go. If you have a heart-attack in Canada, I can’t go there.’ And she’s like, ‘I know. And I understand. And it’s okay,’” says Will.
That’s just one of the compromises necessary for people like Will who continue to work in this country after their visa has long since expired.