Helena Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants’ AssistanceCenter in New Bedford, says her office has received an unprecedented number of calls from Portuguese families whose loved ones have overstayed their visas and were picked up by Immigration authorities in recent days.
“In the past week, we had seven families contacting us because their spouses were picked up by Immigration,” Hughes told O Jornal. “They are all Portuguese. They entered the country under the Visa Waiver Program and have no criminal history.”
Created in 1986, the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) enables citizens and nationals of 38 countries — including Portugal — who meet requirements to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.
“One person had been here 19 years, another 14 years. Four or five families have children born in the United States. Two have dates to leave [the country] — one in December and one in January,” Hughes said. “There’s a lot of anxiety right now and people don’t understand this is going on… they need to be very careful.”
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Attorney Shuyler Pisha, legal director of the immigration law programs at Catholic Social Services of Fall River, said his office is also seeing an uptick in calls from concerned Portuguese families.
“We have gotten calls from Portuguese people regarding detained family members,” he told O Jornal. “We have not investigated any of these cases deeply in the last few weeks because we have too many detained clients at the moment and can’t take more until we resolve some. We have been seeing more people picked up and detained across the board, and from all countries. This includes people who entered on visa waiver program and overstayed, people who overstayed their tourist visas and people who crossed the border illegally.”
Last Friday, Department of Homeland officials said they want to crack down on visitors who abuse the Visa Waiver Program by staying longer than 90 days. Last fiscal year, about 147,000 visitors who came from visa waiver countries did not leave as required, according to the Fiscal Year 2016 Entry/Exit Overstay Report from the DHS. About 4,000 of the 164,662 Portuguese visitors expected to leave the country during that period, did not.
DHS officials said new requirements will now be enforced for VWP countries. All 38 participating countries will be required to use U.S. counterterrorism information to screen travelers crossing their borders, as part of their existing information-sharing agreements. In addition, Portugal, Hungary, Greece and San Marino — countries whose citizens stayed in the U.S. longer than permitted at a rate of two percent or more last year — will also be required to launch public information campaigns to educate their citizens on the specifics of the program and consequences of violating its conditions, the department said.
A source at the Secretariat of State for the Portuguese Communities Abroad told O Jornal on Sunday that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MNE) has already scheduled a meeting for next week regarding this subject.”
“We await further details from the U.S. authorities,” said Miguel Silva. “When we are in the possession of this indispensable data, the MNE shall take a position and communicate such information to all interested parties, as may be necessary.”
According to the Associated Press, U.S. senior administration officials expect the countries to comply voluntarily with the new requirements. But if they don’t, the U.S. could take a number of steps, including, at last resort, ending their membership in the program.
“I really feel the 90-day visa waiver is going to be in jeopardy because there is so much abuse,” Hughes said. “I think there’s a lot of information and education that needs to take place, not only here but over there [Portugal].”
Hughes stresses people need to be informed about the potential ramifications of their actions when they do not comply with VWP rules.
Individuals who travel to the United States on the visa waiver program waive most of the privileges that other visa holders have, such as the right to an immigration hearing. If they are caught, they can be deported rather quickly.
Attorney Pisha said he does not believe U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is targeting people based on them entering the country under the Visa Waiver Program.
“All people who overstay or enter illegally are targets for enforcement,” he said. “Anyone who does not have legal immigration status can be arrested at any time. That is the Trump administrations approach.”
However, under the Obama administration, people who overstayed their visas but did not commit crimes would generally be considered low priority and would not be arrested or detained, noted Attorney Pisha.
“This is because Obama prioritized deportation of people who had committed crimes. Now, ICE goes after whoever is easiest to get. Priorities have been more or less eliminated.”
If you are undocumented and they find you, they will try to deport you, he stressed.
“For example, I have clients who have been in the USA for 15 years, have U.S. citizen children and no criminal record,” he explained. “Under Obama, they were told to check in with ICE every year. Under Trump, they are told to leave the country immediately or face detention. The Trump administration only cares about how many people they can deport, not who they deport.”
Hughes said people should take note that the convenience of VWP comes with a price, as participants must sign a waiver agreeing to forfeit certain rights, including the statutory right to appear in immigration court if they remain in the U.S. for longer than 90 days and have an opportunity to seek continued lawful status.
“Some people have told me they have spent thousands of dollars on lawyers to try to attain legal status,” Hughes said, adding that people need to be careful so they do not fall for scams. “Unfortunately, VWP participants are difficult to save from deportation as they entered the country after basically signing away many of their rights to contest deportation.”
Meanwhile, some individuals are also being advised not to visit their loved ones who have been detained.
“If they are undocumented, they can also get picked up,” Hughes warned. “Only people who have legal status should go visit them.”
Attorney Pisha echoed her words.
“Everyone who has no immigration status is now in danger, regardless of criminal record, and that includes these overstays,” concluded Attorney Pisha.
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