If you are in removal proceedings and do not have a way to legalize your status, it is likely a good idea to seek voluntary departure instead of waiting for an order of removal—or worse yet, skipping out on your court dates, in which case you are guaranteed to receive an order of removal "in absentia."
A grant of voluntary departure permits a non-citizen to depart the United States by a certain date without an order of removal on his or her record. To learn more about qualifying, see Voluntary Departure: Who is Eligible? and 8 U.S.C. § 1229c.
Departing voluntarily can protect a non-citizen from the harsh consequences of an order of removal. However, even compliance with a voluntary departure order does not necessarily protect you from being found inadmissible and denied a visa if you seek to return to the United States in the future.
Nonetheless, a grant of voluntary departure offers other benefits, as discussed below.
If you are ordered removed (deported) by an immigration judge, you will be required to physically depart the United States by a certain time. (Or, if you appeal your case, you will be able to remain in the United States until your appeal is decided.) The removal order will contain the exact date by which you must depart, which is normally 30 days from the date of the issuance of the removal order.
You face several consequences if you are ordered removed or in fact are removed from the United States. First, a non-citizen who has been ordered removed is not admissible to the United States for five, ten, or 20 years, or even permanently, depending upon the reason for the deportation. (See How Long After Deportation Must I Wait Before Returning to the U.S.?)
If you re-enter the U.S. after deportation without permission (or even attempt to) and are caught, you could be sent back to your native country without seeing an immigration judge, and you could face federal criminal charges for illegal re-entry.
If you have been deported but have a new basis upon which to seek a visa or green card, you may apply for special permission to seek readmission to the United States (using USCIS Form I-212). Approval of an application for readmission, however, is not guaranteed. In fact, it is very difficult to obtain, especially since the underlying reason for the deportation will be considered. (Also see After Removal: Possibilities for Reentry to the U.S.)
Another practical concern with deportation is the time frame. A mere 30 days is not much time to settle your financial and personal affairs in the United States, particularly if you have been here for a long time and have personal property, real estate, or substantial community ties.
Voluntary departure has a number of benefits over an order of removal. Most importantly, departing the United States with voluntary departure, as opposed to being removed by an immigration judge, means that you are not automatically inadmissible from the United States for a set number of years.
Also, a grant of voluntary departure carries with it a deadline of either 60 days or 120 days. That allows you more time in which to close bank accounts, terminate leases, sell real estate and personal property, visit friends and family, and make future living arrangements. Moreover, voluntary departure does not carry with it the stigma of deportation, and it allows the government to avoid paying the costs associated with your removal.
You should consider some drawbacks of voluntary departure. First, the consequences of failing to depart the United States are severe, as described in Voluntary Departure: What Happens If You Don't Leave the United States?
Second, even if you voluntarily depart, you might still face immigration issues if you seek to return to the United States. For instance, if you were unlawfully present in the United States for a continuous period of more than 180 days but fewer than 365 days, you face a three-year time bar on returning to the United States.
If you were present in the United States unlawfully for more than one year, you will face a ten-year bar on returning—even if you are otherwise eligible for a visa or green card. In this case, however, you might be eligible for an immigration waiver (legal forgiveness) for the unlawful presence. For information on this penalty and the possible waivers, please see: Consequences of Unlawful Presence in the U.S.—Three- and Ten Year Time Bars.
If you are interested in voluntary departure, you will want to make sure you are eligible, and submit your application at the most optimal time. See Voluntary Departure: Who Is Eligible? for more information or consult an experienced immigration attorney.