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Immigrants in detention choosing ‘voluntary departure’

Faced with the prospect of long waits in detention centers before being able to contest deportation orders, an increasing number of undocumented immigrants are choosing to leave the U.S. “voluntarily”. From 2017 to 2018, the number of applications for "voluntary departures" doubled, reaching a 7-year high. Christie Thompson, staff writer for The Marshall Project, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Trump administration's attempt to limit immigration also includes efforts to remove undocumented immigrants from the United States. And there is now evidence that some immigrants are feeling the pressure and choosing what is called voluntary departure — asking the courts to allow them to return to their country of birth rather than waiting in detention centers.

    In a recent investigation, The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit news organization in partnership with POLITICO found that the number of voluntary departures doubled from 2017 to 2018 reaching a seven year high.

    Christie Thompson, staff writer at The Marshall Project joins us now from Seattle. I tried to give an explanation of it but explain how these voluntary departures work.

  • Christie Thompson:

    So it's a complicated idea. So voluntary departure is a term in immigration law that allows someone to leave the country without actually having a deportation on their record. And if it's granted by a judge it means that they have a little bit more control over how and when they leave the country. And it also means they don't have to wait quite as long to apply to come back to the U.S..

    On the other hand, it also means giving up your fight to stay in this country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what kind of people qualify? You said that a judge can grant that. So who gets these?

  • Christie Thompson:

    Voluntary departure is only available to people who don't have a serious criminal background. And that's something that was really important in our findings is that there's been this huge increase in people that are applying for voluntary departure — a seven year high, nearly 30,000 applications last year.

    And what a lot of experts told us is that that's a sign of how indiscriminate immigration enforcement has gotten under Trump because only people that don't have a serious criminal background that haven't been involved in a lot of crime are eligible and that's who's applying.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. And how does it work? I mean is it that once you get this you automatically get a plane ticket home?

  • Christie Thompson:

    So first you have to apply. A judge has to deem that you're worthy and eligible to be given voluntary departure and then you actually have to buy your own plane ticket home and that can be a real barrier for folks because those plane tickets are actually far more expensive than if you and I were to try and buy a ticket to Mexico City. It's a special kind of ticket that has to be able to be changed at any time so it can be thousands and thousands of dollars just to fly back to Mexico.

    Then you buy your ticket and if you don't leave the country by the date the judge says, it automatically turns into a removal order and then you're facing deportation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The supporters of the president have got to be relatively happy about the findings from your report saying hey, we want to create disincentives for people to either overstay or we want them to leave voluntarily?

  • Christie Thompson:

    Right. And the Justice Department has definitely painted this as a win for the Trump administration. They published these numbers lumped in with deportation data saying this is a sign of the return to rule of law and that enforcement under the Trump administration is working. Their goal of getting more people out of the country whether it be through deportation or voluntary departure, that's happening.

    On the flip side, it's also a sign that even though Trump spends a lot of time talking about these hardened criminals in his political speech that a lot of the people that were sweeping up are people who don't really have a serious criminal background. People who a judge thinks are worthy enough of getting voluntary departure and that's who these people are.

    It's not those you know top hardened criminals that Trump likes to talk about.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And considering the backlog in the system, is it possible that judges are trying to get through their own queue faster by granting more of these?

  • Christie Thompson:

    That's definitely something that we were told. Former immigration judges told me that they were worried that the pressure on this huge looming backlog and the pressure from the Justice Department to really move through cases more quickly might be pressuring judges to try and wrap up cases, offer voluntary departure because that means someone's getting out, you're not going to be tied up in a lot of appeals or dragging out the court fight even longer.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Christie Thompson, staff writer at The Marshall Project joining us from Seattle. Thanks so much.

  • Christie Thompson:

    Thanks for having me.

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