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Heymatt:

Doesn't the U.S. government pay the airfare when they deport someone? Let's say a Chinese guy is here illegally, and then one day he decides he'd like to go home. Couldn't he just advise immigration that he is here illegally and get himself a free one-way ticket to China?

-- Infrequent Flyer, the net

The INS mantra: Every case is different, according to Loren Mack in the local immigration and customs office. Just when they think they have things under control, something comes along that tweaks the rules a bit. It may be hard to generalize, but, goofballs that we are, we'll do it anyway.

Yes, we taxpayers do pay the bill for "removal" of undocumented folks. As a general figure, $2.5 to $3 million per month, nationwide, for commercial airline tickets. That doesn't include the cost of deportation flights handled by the U.S. Marshall's office. The laws are ours, so, for the most part, we pay the bill.

As for your hypothetical gentleman dreaming of a better life in Bejing, he'd get his wish, one way or another. If he has committed no aggravated felonies, and they've checked the loose change in his pockets and believe he can't pay his own fare, he'd post a bond then be sent home to await his call-in letter. That tells him when to appear at his local INS office with his worldly goods to begin the trek to China. If he oversleeps and fails to show, his name goes on the immigration fugitives list, along with the 40,000 others already on it.

Your hypothetical is just one tiny island in the vast world of possibilities for detention and deportation. And not one that many people choose. There are voluntary departure and "self-deport" programs in which the immigrant pays his own way home.

The newest deportation scheme arose from a binational agreement and applies to undocumented people from the interior of Mexico. Rather than just booting them across an imaginary line, which many immediately re-cross, the feds fly them to Mexico City or Guadalajara, then they go by bus to their home city. The U.S. spin on the plan is that it will reduce the number of people who die in dangerous border crossings. The first of these flights left from Tucson two weeks ago. In-flight meal? Sandwich, drink, banana.

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