Undocumented Immigrants Risk Arrest when Voluntarily Trying to Depart the United States

Undocumented immigrants who decide to leave the United States because of increasing enforcement and decreasing job prospects now face one more obstacle: the threat of arrest and deportation by border officers inspecting outbound traffic. Bonnie Arellano, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said that when illegal immigrants are detected trying to leave the country, they are not just ushered across the line. Instead, they are processed and formally removed. The consequences of an arrest can be harsh: Those deported for unauthorized presence in the U.S. may be barred for 10 years from seeking legal immigrant papers. In addition, a later arrest for illegal entry may be prosecuted criminally. Although the scrutiny was designed to catch smugglers delivering currency and firearms to Mexican cartels, immigrants with otherwise clean records sometimes get caught in that net, said Guadalupe Ramirez, director at the Nogales port. Port inspectors use discretion in deciding whether a person should be allowed to accept voluntary removal, he said. “The whole idea is there are going to be consequences now for people who come into the United States with the sole purpose of doing illegal activity,” Ramirez said. “Our job tells us if we find somebody at a port coming or going that is in violation of our laws, we are going to document it.” Arizona’s immigration law would have required police to question the immigration status of anyone stopped for another suspected offense if there was a “reasonable suspicion” the person was in the U.S. illegally. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled last week that key portions of the law could not go into effect. For the past year, border officials have conducted round-the-clock screening of southbound traffic out of the USA. Some advocates for immigrants say the policy deters illegal immigrants from leaving, even though that’s the government’s goal. “It demonstrates the inconsistency and contradictions within our laws,” said Isabel Garcia, co-chairwoman of Derechos Humanos, an immigrant rights group in Tucson. “Instead of permitting people who want to leave, we punish them in this fashion.” Even some groups dedicated to border security and immigration controls are critical of the policy. William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, last week called on the government to adopt a “safe passage” program. “We are asking the Obama administration to designate border checkpoints … illegal immigrants can use to leave the U.S. without fear.” The Obama administration — in an effort to intercept weapons and cartel money — set up the full-time southbound checkpoints. “On a weekly basis, we make multiple seizures and pick up people who have warrants for rape, child molestation and murder,” Ramirez said.

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