One recent claim in a text post has amassed tens of thousands of shares on Facebook. It says illegal immigrants have the ability to leave detention centers "any time" they want. It reads:
"No one mentions that illegals are free to leave detention centers anytime to go back to Mexico. They aren't our prisoners."
The July 6 post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
We found many iterations of the claim on Facebook, most using the exact same wording.
But here’s the thing: The system that places migrants in detention doesn’t quite work as simply as this claim suggests.
Voluntary departure is possible — but not automatic — for migrants who are being held at detention centers. But simply leaving "any time" they want is not an option, immigration experts told us.
"Some unauthorized immigrants in detention are eligible to apply for ‘voluntary departure’ during a removal hearing," David FitzGerald, co-director at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, told PolitiFact.
He continued: "An immigration judge has to approve the application. Eligibility for voluntary departure is restricted to those who do not have an aggravated felony conviction, have been in the U.S. at least a year, and are deemed by the court to be of ‘good moral character.’ If the application is granted, the immigrant is then repatriated. The judge sets a deadline of up to 60 days for the immigrant to leave the U.S., and may require a bond to be posted. There are harsh legal consequences for staying in the U.S. past the deadline."
Theresa Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C., said the Facebook claim is "not accurate."
"If you are in detention, you just can’t leave the center," Brown said. "If they are in government custody they are not free to leave. They are detained, they can’t just walk out. And if somebody arrives at a port of entry to legally seek entry to the U.S. and is told they are inadmissible, they can request to withdraw their application for admission and return. But it is not their absolute right; it is the government’s discretion … at that point in time, they can say, ‘I just want to go home,’ but the government does not need to grant that request."
Also, because it’s easier for a migrant to re-enter the United States after they leave under the terms of a voluntary departure, the government may prefer to deny the request, Brown said.
"The government can say ‘no, we don’t think this person is really going to leave ... so we are going to process them for removal,’" Brown said. "The fundamental legal point is that no one who is subject to U.S. immigration or is in a position where they have been apprehended can leave on their own without the government saying ‘yes you can’ and that includes at a port of entry or not."
The situation in detention centers is more complicated than these posts suggest.
"Under the zero tolerance border enforcement policies, migrants who are apprehended or turn themselves in face criminal prosecution for illegal entry. As such, they cannot just go back into Mexico," wrote Susan Martin, emeritus professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, in an email. "In fact, the prosecutions are designed to prevent return without consequences to the migrant, particularly if it means the migrants get another opportunity to try to cross the border illegally."
Martin explained that many detained migrants are not actually from Mexico, and do not have the right to go back to Mexico unless the country accepts them. Getting back to other countries is also complicated and problematic, she said, and some simply refuse to accept their nationals back.
We recently fact-checked a similar statement about migrant children made by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas. After visiting a shelter in a restored Walmart, Burgess said that undocumented children "are free to leave" shelters any time they want. We rated that statement Half True.
Shelters are not detention centers, so their staff can’t forcibly restrain children if they walk out. But if a child were to leave, the process demands that staff members call law enforcement and the child be returned to the facility.
Viral Facebook posts say that migrants being held at detention centers "are free to leave detention centers anytime to go back to Mexico. They aren't our prisoners."
This is a flawed argument — migrants being held in government custody are not simply free to leave.
Undocumented immigrants living in the United States, as well as those being held in detention centers, can request voluntary departure. But the U.S. government has discretion over whether those requests are granted.
The statement contains an element of truth but oversimplifies migrants’ abilities to leave detention centers and ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.