The U.S. government has spent more than $51 million over the past four summers flying nearly 64,000 illegal immigrants home to Mexico City.
The flights are intended to break the smuggling cycle and reduce the desert death count. But evidence shows the binational Interior Repatriation Program has not made any substantial difference in border smuggling or desert deaths. And the principal beneficiary is a Mexican airline contracted to operate the twice-daily flights out of Tucson, critics say.
In the 362 days the voluntary flights were offered, during 2004-2007, the bodies of 342 illegal immigrants were discovered along Arizona’s stretch of the U.S-Mexico border—nearly one per day, Southern Arizona medical examiners’ records show. The yearly totals recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol show that the number of border deaths each year since the program started in 2004 has been higher than in any of the previous years.
Taking just the number of bodies handled by the Pima County medical examiner, and comparing 2001-2003, before the repatriation program started, with 2004-2007, the number of bodies found hasn’t decreased.
“The repatriation efforts have not stopped deaths. There’s not even a decrease in deaths,” said Jennifer Allen, director of Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigrants-rights organization. “This continues to be this deadly, exorbitantly costly shell game.”
The program—launched in July 2004 after the U.S and Mexican governments agreed on terms—is designed to separate illegal immigrants from smugglers by flying them to Mexico City rather than busing them to Nogales, where they are left at the border and susceptible to smugglers awaiting them with offers to try again. Those who participate also get bus transportation from Mexico City to their hometowns in Mexico.
Through the first two weeks of the program this year, 3,615 illegal immigrants have taken the flights home, she said.
“That’s 3,600 individuals who we know are not subject to extreme heat in the desert, to traffickers and smugglers who don’t have their safety in mind,” she said. “We’ve seen smugglers and traffickers right there at the border who are only interested in making a buck, waiting to see if they can exploit the individuals.”
Money to Mexico
Another criticism is that the United States pays nearly the entire tab—in 2007 Mexico paid $190,000 to provide staffing for the program—and a big chunk of the money lands in the hands of a Mexican airline: AeroMexico.
CSI Aviation Services of Albuquerque, which has the federal contract, partners with AeroMexico, which operates the twice-daily flights out of Tucson International Airport, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
The discrepancy is likely explained by two factors, said Judith Gans, immigration-policy program manager at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.
“Who’s paying reflects both the capacity to pay and the interest in stopping illegal immigration,” Gans said.
Thousands turn down offer
The program is voluntary, and every year thousands of illegal immigrants turn down the plane ticket home and hop on the bus back to Nogales, presumably to try again.
An average of 176 illegal immigrants per day have taken the flights home in the past four years. That accounts for only 20 percent of the Mexican illegal border crossers apprehended daily in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector in July-September over the past four years, agency figures show. Illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico cannot take the flights to Mexico City, nor can illegal immigrants with criminal records.
Small portion of budget
U.S. officials consider it money well spent because it keeps those who take the flights safe, and, as Nantel says, there is no cost on human life.
Annual money spent on the program accounts for less than 1 percent of the Department of Homeland Security budget, Gans said. That said, the $51.6 million could have been more wisely spent on a program that targets the root causes of illegal immigration, she said.
The flights home do no harm and likely reduce the odds of dying for the people taking the flights, but the numbers clearly show it hasn’t stopped the death toll, Gans said.
“All of these enforcement efforts are going to make a difference at the margin, but anytime the laws are so fundamentally out of alignment with the economic incentives and forces, the economic incentives are going to overwhelm the system,” Gans said.