The remaining way for a migrant to leave a detention center — and the one to which the July 2019 memes appeared to refer — is through voluntary departure. Typically, a migrant chooses to apply for voluntary departure when they calculate that they are likely to be deported and do not have a strong case for obtaining a legal immigration status.
Voluntary departure offers them a kind of “damage limitation,” because whereas having a deportation on their record makes it very unlikely they would ever be allowed to re-enter the United States in the future, a voluntary departure does allow for at least the possibility of a successful future application for a visa. Under voluntary departure, an immigration judge gives a migrant a certain period of time (typically 60 days), in which to resolve their affairs in the U.S. and leave the country.
However, there are several important restrictions and barriers associated with voluntary departure, and the process is, once again, controlled by immigration courts and ICE, rather than the migrant in question.
For example, certain migrants are not even eligible for voluntary departure, as Rosenbluth explained: “It can be based on good moral character, it can be based on criminal charges — there are certain criminal charges that make you ineligible under the statutes.”
There is also a residency requirement. Title 8, Section 1229(c) of the U.S. Code states that voluntary departure is only available to a migrant who has been “physically present in the United States for a period of at least one year,” and “is, and has been, a person of good moral character for at least 5 years.” Importantly, this means that voluntary departure is very unlikely to be an option for most of the migrants caught up in detention centers along the southern border of the U.S. in the past two years or so — a cohort which has been the focus of most media scrutiny and public debate — since many of those were apprehended shortly after crossing into the United States from Mexico.
As well as being free of certain criminal convictions, the migrant must also clearly demonstrate that they have the financial means to pay for their own transport — another major obstacle to voluntary departure.
Not only must migrants cover the cost of their flights out of the United States — a requirement which likely rules out voluntary departure as an option for many — but they can only buy a flexible commercial plane ticket, meaning the time and date of their departure can be pushed forward or backwards to suit the logistical needs of ICE, Rosenbluth told us.
This further undermines the claim that migrants can leave detention centers “at any time” — in reality, they are not in control of when they depart a detention facility, even if they have met all the other requirements and can afford to pay for their own travel expenses.