You Can Check Out Any Time You Want, But You Can Never Leave

On NPR’s “All Things Considered” April 23, 2014, Ted Robbins reported on some unusual goings-on at the Nogales point-of-entry. Apparently ICE inspectors not only scrutinize vehicles entering the U.S., but also are taking a close look at those going the other way — entering Mexico. Even if they find no contraband, they examine the traveller’s documents. And, if they discover someone who does not have a valid visa, they arrest them and send them to a court in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They are tried, convicted — and then deported. Mind you, they were 20 feet away from “self-deporting.” According to Google maps, Las Cruces is 302 miles from Nogales, a 4.5 hour trip. With apologies to The Eagles, you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.

From Nogales to Las Cruces

From Nogales to Las Cruces

There are cities named “Nogales” in both Arizona and Mexico. Naturally they are across the border from each other. Here’s part of the transcript of the NPR story:

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.

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.

The economics of this are straightforward. The U.S. government is wasting tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) on this stupid program. According to Robbins, the minimum jail sentence is six months at a cost of $160 per day.  That’s $28,800 per person.  Assuming a travel cost of $0.50 per mile, there’s another $302 (round-trip Nogales to Las Cruces).  In other words, the government is wasting almost $30,000 per person on these prosecutions. Why is it so hard for the Obama administration to get stuff like this right?

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About Tony Lima

Retired after teaching economics at California State Univ., East Bay (Hayward, CA). Ph.D., economics, Stanford. Also taught MBA finance at the California University of Management and Technology. Occasionally take on a consulting project if it's interesting. Other interests include wine and technology.