Here’s a question I hear all the time: If it’s so difficult and dangerous to cross through the Arizona desert, why do so many immigrants choose to enter the country that way? Why don’t more immigrants just fly to the US on an airplane, pretend to be a tourist, then remain in the country indefinitely? It seems like a much easier and comfortable way to travel, right?
First off, many foreigners do enter the US as tourists and remain in the country, as I discussed in an earlier article. But in order to enter the country through a legal port of entry (e.g., an airport or border checkpoint), one has to first apply for and obtain permission from the US government in the form of something called a “visa.” There are all kinds of visas: tourist visas, student visas, temporary work visas, permanent resident visas, etc.
Temporary visas are valid for a particular period of time, then the visa holder is required to return to his or her home country. To “overstay” one’s visa means to remain in the US even after the term of the visa or visit has expired.
In most cases, Americans don’t even have to think about applying for a visa when we want to visit a foreign country. You just book the ticket, get on the plane, and present your passport when you reach your destination.
For foreigners who want to visit the US, the process is usually not so simple. Unless coming from one of the world’s 36 richest countries, foreigners generally have to apply for a visa even to take a simple vacation to the United States.
US embassies are particularly careful not to give tourist visas to people who seem like they might overstay their visa. It is therefore difficult for people from relatively poor countries to obtain a tourist visas to the US unless they are able to prove that their financial situation is healthy and their ties to home are strong. In other words, they have to prove that they have no intention (or little incentive) to overstay their visa.
Most Mexicans and Central Americans simply cannot prove this. They therefore enter through the Arizona desert because there’s no other option.