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Crime & Justice

Here's what happens to undocumented immigrants when they're detained

Standard housing dorms at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention Facility in Adelanto each have a common area with tables.
Standard housing dorms at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention Facility in Adelanto each have a common area with tables.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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"I want to know what happens to L.A.-area undocumented people when they are detained" – KPCC listener Tina Shull on SoCal. So Curious.

The threat of deportation weighs heavily on many people living in the U.S. illegally.

A lot of things can happen, though, between being picked up by immigration officials and actually getting sent back to your home country. 

To help answer Tina's question, KPCC's immigration reporter Leslie Berestein Rojas joined Take Two.

Say you're undocumented and you get picked up by ICE. What happens?

It really depends on your case: where you're from, what your background is, if you have a criminal record, etc.

But I'll give you some basics.

Say you're from Mexico, which shares a land border with the U.S., and you get picked up incidentally – at a worksite or wherever.

You don't have a deportation order, but you are living here illegally.

If you don't have a criminal record, chances are you'll get sent out of the country pretty fast.

You'll be offered a "voluntary return," which means you don't fight it.

In that case, you could be transported to the border the same day.

But does everyone get a shot at a legal hearing if they want it?

Anyone can ask to see a judge, and anyone can say they have a credible fear of going back.

In that case, officials will determine if you're a flight risk or if you're a security threat.

At that point, they'll decide whether to put you in detention. If you have a criminal record, chances are good that will happen.

If you have a deportation order already, it could go a couple of ways.

They could simply reinstate the deportation order and get you out of the country ASAP.

Or, if you have been formally deported before and you've come back, they'll mostly likely try to prosecute you. That means federal jail time.

What if you're not from Mexico?

Well, they can't just send you across the border, right?

So there's a good chance you'll be detained.

Pretty much the same rules apply, otherwise – you can appeal your deportation or not.

If you appeal, you could be detained for some time as your case moves through immigration court.

If not, they'll send you back to your home country as soon as they can get travel documents for you, and get you on a flight.

So if you have one of those more complicated cases and you are detained, where would you be placed?

The idea is to hold people close to home, though that doesn't always work out. It depends on where there is space.

If you're from the LA area, there's a good chance you'll wind up at the detention center in Adelanto, which is about 90 miles from L.A., or at one of two county jails in Orange County that contract out bed space for immigrant detention.

If there's no space, they might send you farther out.

And by the way, one important note: say you're a legal permanent resident – a green card holder – but you've committed a crime that can get you deported.

Chances are you'll be in detention for a while. It's not only because you'll be considered a mandatory detainee because of your crime, but because you have a lot invested in the U.S.

Legal residents will typically appeal their deportation, and this can take a while.

Let's get back to those who are sent back to Mexico. What happens when they get there?

Immigration officials will take you to the border and deliver you through a turnstile to Mexican immigration officials.

Government workers there will process you and give you some information and pointers, depending on where you're going.

Then you'll be referred to a few places where you can say, shelters like Casa Del Migrante, for example, which has received deportees for years.

Then it's up to you. Some people will try to come back, but that's become a lot more difficult and expensive in recent years.