No. of illegal Korean residents in US ‘spikes‘
Visa waiver system in jeopardy
By Jane Han
NEW YORK — For most people, a traffic violation costs money and points. But for Lee, it can terminate her life in America.
An illegal immigrant of five years, she could face deportation should a police officer decide to check her status.
“It’s like I’m walking on thin ice every day,” says Lee, 32, who turned illegal when her student visa was revoked for failing to enroll in school.
She entered the U.S. legitimately for language school in 2005, but was forced to quit studying due to a sudden downturn in family finances.
The number of people like Lee, illegal Korean residents in the U.S. is growing rapidly, putting the visa waiver system in jeopardy.
“The number isn’t just growing, it’s more like spiking,” says Robert Kim, an official of the National Association of Korean Americans.
According to new data released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last month, 230,000 undocumented Koreans reside in the U.S. as of January 2011. This is up 60,000 from one year ago.
The latest estimates show that Koreans now take up 2 percent of the 11.5 million illegal population living in the U.S., making up the eighth largest group of illegal aliens.
The largest numbers of illegal immigrants come from, in order, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, China, the Philippines and India, according to the DHS.
“You can’t tell by the looks if someone is legit or not. No one knows,” says Kim. “Everybody seems to have their own story on how they slipped into illegal status.”
Law experts generally single out visa overstays as the biggest contribution to the rise in illegal Koreans.
“People tend to conjure up criminal images, like people jumping across borders, when they think of illegal immigrants,” says Jeff Rhee, an immigration lawyer based in New Jersey, “but most people actually enter the U.S. legally and end up turning illegal by not returning home when their time is up.”
He says the tough economy has cornered many individuals to give up their valid forms of visas.
For example, those holding the E-2 investor visa have lost their status as soon as they discontinued their investments. Same goes for those with the F-1 student visa who became illegal once they couldn’t afford to pay their tuition.
“These people have been pushed to the edge of a cliff,” says Rhee.
Visa Waiver at Risk?
The visa waiver program (VWP), which took effect in November 2008, is considered another factor that has facilitated illegal immigration.
Under the bilateral program, Koreans are allowed to travel to the U.S. for business or pleasure for up to 90 days without securing a visa.
“We’re seeing people come and then deciding to stay for good,” says Raymond Kim, attorney at Kim & Min Law Firm, a Los Angeles-based practice.
He says those who end up staying have hopes to make a better life in the U.S., even though the U.S. economy isn’t in any better shape compared to Korea.
Some are even relying on a possible immigration reform and amnesty proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Obama has been pushing for a comprehensive immigration reform ever since he was on the campaign trail in 2008. The plan was put on the backburner as the healthcare reform took priority, but is regaining attention and traction on Capitol Hill.
“Undocumented workers are keeping their hopes up that this administration will implement an immigration overhaul, which would grant them legal status,” says Kim. “But this is a complex issue that calls for much time.”
In the meantime, some say the increasing number of illegal Korean aliens is posing a threat to the VWP itself.
“Just like there are requirements to enter the program, there are conditions that must be met in order to sustain it,” says Choi Young-soo, a New York-based immigration lawyer.
It is required for a country to have a visa refusal rate of less than 3 percent in the prior fiscal year to be eligible for the VWP.
“There may be consequences if overstay rates continue to rise,” he said, explaining that the U.S. can terminate any country’s participation in the program if an emergency occurs that threatens the U.S. security interests.
“If crime rates linked to illegal immigration go up, it can trigger the U.S. to consider other options,” says Choi.
Kim says an immediate termination is unlikely, but didn’t rule out the possibility in the future.
“Should the current trend continue for a few years, there is a chance that the U.S. will end the bilateral program,” he said.