The Curious Practice Of Bringing Immigrants Back — To Deport Them

U.S. officers at the ports of entry are arresting undocumented immigrants as they try to leave the U.S. They're then prosecuted and sent to prison, only to be removed from the U.S. anyway. Why bother? That's a question people on all sides of the immigration debate are asking.

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A number of undocumented immigrants are being arrested and imprisoned, not while trying to enter the U.S. as you would expect, they're being caught while trying to leave. That's right, people trying to self-deport, as some politicians have put it, are being prosecuted and given prison sentences then deported anyway. NPR's Ted Robbins has that story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Customs and Border Protection officers in boots screen cars and drivers as they enter the U.S. at the port of entry between Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona. Nothing unusual there. But off to the side, in one lane, CBP officers are questioning people in Spanish as they drive out of the U.S. into Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ROBBINS: Two agents just got on a bus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Mm-hmm.

ROBBINS: A large, Greyhound-type bus.

JOE AGOSTTINI: They're going to go and see if anyone is transporting illegal proceeds or they're transporting more than $10,000 of money or checks that need to be reported.

ROBBINS: Mexican cartels send big money from U.S. sales south as they smuggle tons of drugs north. Assistant Nogales Port Director Joe Agosttini says the southbound inspections are being done to disrupt that ongoing cycle of drugs and money.

AGOSTTINI: But if in the process you discover that the person is illegally in the U.S., then the person has to pay a consequence.

ROBBINS: That's what has people puzzled. Even if someone doesn't have ties to cartels or any contraband, they're arrested 20 feet from leaving the U.S.

ROBERT BRACK: I've not seen that historically, so it was a significant shift in prosecution policy. And it really surprised me. I didn't see that coming.

ROBBINS: Robert Brack is a federal judge is Las Cruces, New Mexico. He's been called the busiest judge in America - sentencing more than 14,000 people over the last decade for trying to enter the country illegally. He says he only began seeing people prosecuted for trying to leave in the last year or two. Judge Brack says he understands why officers would arrest people trying to smuggle cash to Mexican cartels.

BRACK: But the people that I see didn't have any money. They've never had any money, and they certainly don't have any guns. It's just people that were in the country without permission trying to leave.

ROBBINS: Arresting people who are self-deporting seems to contradict the Obama administration's stated policy. That policy calls for Customs and Border Protection to focus on serious criminals and high-risk offenders while using discretion with other undocumented immigrants. Marc Rosenblum is with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

MARC ROSENBLUM: If there's any place where you would expect to CBP to exercise discretion at the border and where you'd expect U.S. attorneys to exercise discretion and not prosecute people, you would think that people who are on their way out of the country would be good candidates for that.

ROBBINS: No one knows exactly how many people have been prosecuted trying to leave the U.S. at land ports. The statistics are lumped in with people caught trying to enter illegally. Cheryl Blum is a lawyer in Tucson. She says she's defended dozens of cases of people caught going back to Mexico to see sick family members, even people wanting to go back permanently. She doesn't understand why.

CHERYL BLUM: If they're trying to leave, they're actually trying to obey the law. I think to stop them and then use up resources just to try to punish these folks is a complete waste of money. It's a complete waste of time. It's an absurdity.

ROBBINS: People convicted after being arrested leaving end up in prison for as long as six months. The bill for that sentence, up to $160 daily for each inmate. Even people who want stricter immigration enforcement think that's a waste. Ira Mehlman is with FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

IRA MEHLMAN: They are expending resources on people who are in the process of removing themselves from the country while neglecting the millions and millions of people who are dug in and aren't leaving the country.

ROBBINS: We asked Customs and Border Protection officials why people who want to leave are being arrested. We got no answer. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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