What is Deportation?

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Deportation is the process of sending a noncitizen back to his or her home country after he or she has violated the United States’ laws on immigration or criminal activity. Deportation is a powerful tool in the hands of the government and can lead to severe penalties including fines, jail time, and the removal of family members.

The process of deportation begins when a noncitizen is found to have violated immigration or criminal laws, or is deemed to pose a threat to the public safety. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will then place the noncitizen in deportation proceedings, where he or she will have an opportunity to present a defense to his or her case with the help of a specialized immigration attorney.

Deportation can be ordered on a number of different grounds, but the most common is illegal entry or re-entry into the United States, whether it is entering without a valid visa or overstaying a visa. Other grounds include crimes of a “moral character,” such as domestic violence, or criminal activities that threaten public safety and national security, such as drug trafficking or the sale of prohibited substances.

Once a judge has ruled that someone should be removed from the country, he or she will issue a “removal order.” The person will then need to leave the country before the expiration date on the removal order. It is possible to appeal an removal order, but the appeals process can be difficult.

In addition to being a significant penalty, deportation can have devastating psychological and economic consequences for family members left behind. The anguish can be compounded by steep financial decline and a loss of access to the health-care system. For many, the loss of a loved one leads to feelings of deep despair and worthlessness.

When an immigrant is deported, it can also affect a country’s foreign policy and national security. In the 1990s, for example, deportations of Central Americans helped fuel the rise of MS-13, a gang that posed an increased threat to regional stability. More recently, a high volume of planned returns during the COVID-19 pandemic could put pressure on a fragile democratic government in Gambia, which has struggled to move on from decades of dictatorship.

Generally, origin states do not protest the deportation of their citizens openly, but they do have tools at their disposal to make readmission difficult or impossible. Often, these tools involve nonresponse or bureaucratic obstacles, which can be in the form of refusing to cooperate with readmission requests or imposing a high bar for verifying identity or issuing travel documents. The result is a complex and opaque process that often results in the removal of people who might otherwise be able to return. The opacity can also contribute to a lack of trust between the two countries, further slowing down the readmission process. However, even when readmission is possible, it can take years to complete. Ultimately, no country wants to be seen as a source of deportations.