Why there's no need for "safe departure" border checkpoints for illegal immigrants.

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 29 2010 4:20 PM

You Can Go Home Again

Why there's no need for "safe departure" border checkpoints for illegal immigrants.

Arizona protests. Click image to expand.
Demonstrators protest Arizona's immigration bill

Fox News, the Christian Science Monitor, and Yahoo, among other news outlets, carried a story Wednesday on a movement to promote "safe departure" for illegal immigrants. The concept, put forward by Americans for Legal Immigration, is to establish special border checkpoints for illegal immigrants who are voluntarily leaving Arizona, so they can do so "freely" and "without fear of being detained." Do illegal immigrants really run the risk of being detained when they leave the United States?

No. Whether you're a citizen, a resident alien, or an illegal immigrant, you're free to leave the country so long as there's no warrant out for your arrest. The United States doesn't require exit visas or have a comprehensive exit-control system, and southbound travelers are more likely to encounter Mexican customs agents than American law enforcement officers. According to Department of Homeland Security data, as many as 100,000 undocumented workers have left Arizona in the past two years, either to return home or try out other states. Although Americans for Legal Immigration promotes "safe departure" checkpoints as a way to eliminate "desert crossings, [or] paying money to the cartels for passage south," such risks aren't necessary. Migrants can simply use public transportation, as detailed in this CNN story about an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who boarded a bus with a one-way ticket, paid for by the Guatemalan consulate.

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In recent years, law enforcement agencies have set up border checkpoints to suss out southbound gun trafficking and bulk cash shipments associated with crime syndicates. It's possible that an illegal immigrant returning home through one of these checkpoints would face questioning. If it became apparent that he had been living in the country illegally, he might then be barred from obtaining a new visa, should he apply for one in the future. Likewise, the DHS analyzes passenger manifests on planes to check for visitors who overstayed their visas and could deny their applications in the future. In neither case, however, would the departing illegal immigrant face long-term detainment.

It's also theoretically possible that en route to the border, a reverse-migrant could end up in a situation that would trigger prosecution. Let's say an illegal immigrant drives through Colorado on the way back home to Mexico. Colorado has about 20 state troopers with 287(g) authorization (meaning they can bring immigration charges). If the reverse-migrant gets pulled over for speeding by one of these troopers, it's possible he'd get a notice to appear in court. He might eventually be charged with unlawful presence (a civil offense). But "safe departure" border checkpoints would not prevent this unlikely series of events. *

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Correction, Aug. 2, 2010: An illegal immigrant pulled over for a traffic violation in Colorado might eventually be charged with unlawful presence, rather than illegal entry, as the article originally stated. It's difficult to prosecute illegal entry in the interior because it must be proved, usually by witnessing the act, rather than just inferred.

Explainer thanks Cheryl David of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Council, Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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