U.S. Is Out $51 Million For Flying 64,000 Illegals To Mexico

U.S. is out $51M for flying 64,000 illegals to Mexico

By Brady McCombs
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona
Published: 08.10.2008

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.

U.S. officials are satisfied with the results through the first four years, said Kelly Nantel, press secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has run the program since 2005.

She doesn't understand how people can knock a program designed to keep people safe. Without it, the death toll could be higher, she said.

“We could be not taking into account that it reaches temperatures of 120 degrees or higher” in the border desert, Nantel said. “But we do because we recognize that there are human beings involved in this process and it's critical we take care of them.”

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.

“Why can't we use U.S. carriers?” asked Glenn Spencer, president of the Cochise County-based American Border Patrol, a non-governmental organization that keeps tabs on the Border Patrol. “Probably Mexico won't let us. So, they are profiting off of our nonsense.”

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.

Mexico wants to protect its citizens and keep them from dying in the desert but receives millions of dollars from remittance sent home from Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally, she said.

The program is as much about foreign policy and diplomacy as it is about immigration, Gans said.

“It's about trying to work with the Mexican government and do something cooperatively,” Gans said.

The program is a way for both governments to “get off the hook” for bad policies that perpetuate illegal immigration, said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, coordinator of the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona, which studies border deaths. The program is nothing more than a small bandage on a much larger wound, she said.

“The repatriation program, both to the Mexico government and the American government, has been a way to respond to political pressure in each country regarding to the number of people who come across and the number of people who die,” Rubio-Goldsmith 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.

Those numbers don't take into account that many apprehended Mexicans live close to the border, meaning that a flight to Mexico City wouldn't help them, Nantel said. Officials would like to see more take the flights, but Nantel said that 20 percent for a voluntary program is actually pretty good.

Immigrants-rights advocates say the lack of participation demonstrates the ill-advised logic of the program.

“This really shows a shallow understanding of immigration,” said Allen, of Border Action Network. “It's this notion that you just move people around, from point A to point B, and that will deter immigration. It underestimates the need for people to migrate. It's much more complex than just the shell game of these deterrent tactics.”

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.

“It saves the taxpayers money and addresses a very critical life-safety issue for individuals who are out in the desert in these very dangerous months,” Nantel said.

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.

The money could have built as many as 20 miles of fencing on the border or bought camera systems that watch the border, both of which would be more effective deterrents, said Spencer, of the American Border Patrol. The deaths and continued traffic show that the flights don't stop illegal immigrants from trying again, he said.

The problem, he said, is that the Department of Homeland Security doesn't measure its own performance.

Following the first year of the program, the Mexican Foreign Ministry compiled a report on the program. It found that 10 percent of the 14,071 illegal immigrants who took the flights home were apprehended again in the program run, less than the 32 percent recidivism rate in the sector at the time.

Since that report, however, the Interior Repatriation Program has not been studied or analyzed. The Border Patrol doesn't release the current recidivism rate.

“It's a smoke screen,” Spencer said. “It makes them appear as if they are doing something.”

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com.