Tuesday, September 11, 2012
U.S. suspends immigrant flights back to Mexico
PHOENIX —The U.S. government has temporarily stopped a voluntary repatriation program to fly home undocumented Mexican immigrants caught trying to enter Arizona during the summer because there aren’t enough illegal border crossers to fill daily flights.
There have been no flights this year under the 8-year-old program designed to reduce immigrant deaths by dissuading Mexicans caught crossing the Arizona border from trying again in the fierce heat of summer.
Attempts to keep them going and justify the costs of the $100 million program by filling planes with deported criminals have apparently been blocked by the Mexican government, which didn’t want violent male offenders mixed in with women and children.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said they are still negotiating with the Mexican government to resume the program, though any agreement will likely be too late for any flights this year.
The U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have gone back to the practice of returning most immigrants directly across the Arizona-Mexico border.
The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program had operated each summer since 2004 under an agreement between Homeland Security and the Mexican government aimed at reducing deaths in Arizona’s harsh deserts by deterring apprehended immigrants from immediately crossing again.
By flying undocumented Mexican immigrants from Tucson more than 1,100 miles south to Mexico City, rather than simply forcing them to walk back across the border, it was believed fewer would make the trek back north and seek out smugglers to try to lead them across again. But, as The Arizona Republic reported last year, there have been questions about the program’s effectiveness.
From 2004 to 2011, the government spent $90 million to $100 million to fly 125,164 undocumented immigrants back to Mexico from Tucson. The program peaked in the summer of 2010, when 23,384 immigrants were flown back, according to the DHS.
But last summer, with a plunge in migration that officials attributed to the weak economy and tougher immigration enforcement, only 8,893 immigrants were repatriated. Flights carrying up to 146 people were cut to once from twice daily last year.
With the numbers dropping, the DHS and the Mexican government earlier this year began renegotiating the terms. Under the original deal, only first-time crossers and families from Mexico’s interior states were eligible for the voluntary flights.
On arrival in Mexico City, they were given bus tickets to their hometowns. The United States paid the full cost of the program. The Mexican Consulate in Tucson interviewed each person to make sure the return was voluntary.
But this year, according to an Associated Press report on Monday, Mexican officials balked at a plan by the DHS to add immigrants with criminal convictions to the planes to make the flights more cost-effective. DHS officials would not confirm that account.
Mexican diplomatic officials in Tucson, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., declined to answer questions about the disagreement. In a written statement, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington said the Mexican government continues to work with the U.S. government on “measures to prevent the loss of human life at our common border.”
Both governments have agreed to a separate program starting next month, called the Interior Removal Initiative, under which undocumented Mexican immigrants from across the U.S. could be flown back to Mexico. That program would not be voluntary.
More than 1,500 border crossers have died in Arizona’s desert over the past decade, with most of the deaths during the summer. Before the flight program, most undocumented immigrants caught in Arizona would simply be returned to the border, where officials would watch them cross back into Mexico, and where, officials acknowledged, most immediately sought the help of smugglers to try to cross again.
Critics have questioned the effectiveness of the flight program in reducing repeated crossing attempts by immigrants.
As The Republic previously reported, Customs and Border Protection records showed that, within months, hundreds of migrants flown south had been caught trying to cross illegally again.
Although it appeared that the rate at which migrants tried to cross did drop significantly, it was impossible to be certain because the Border Patrol would not provide complete recidivism data. From 2008 to 2010, 6 to 12percent of those flown home were rearrested that summer.
A 2010 review by the Government Accounting Office concluded that ICE failed to track data in a way that allowed it to accurately measure how well the repatriation program worked.
From 2004 to 2010, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which accounts for most of Arizona’s border with Mexico, tallied 1,362 migrant deaths. The numbers peaked in 2010, with 249 deaths, but have dropped the past two years.
Through the end of August this year, there have been 150 deaths. However, immigrant groups argue that the numbers are still high given the huge drops in estimated immigration over the past couple of years.
“The people dying on the border, we’re seeing, are mostly people who are very poor. There’s many indigenous people who are walking over with ‘coyotes,’” said Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a Tucson human-rights group focused on migrant issues.
Although she sees some potential issues with the flights, Molina said that simply dropping people off at the border, as is now happening again, “makes them extremely vulnerable to being victimized.”