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Border Patrol ceases flights home for illegal immigrants

By ELLIOT SPAGAT
The Associated Press
TUCSON, Ariz. — The U.S. government has halted flights home for Mexicans caught entering the country illegally in the deadly summer heat of Arizona’s deserts, a money-saving move that ends a seven-year experiment that cost taxpayers nearly $100 million.
More than 125,000 passengers have been flown deep into Mexico for free since 2004 in an effort that initially met with skepticism from Mexican government officials and migrants, but was gradually embraced as a way to help people back on their feet and save lives.
The Border Patrol hailed it as a way to discourage people from trying their luck again, and it appears to have kept many away — at least for a short time.
But with Border Patrol arrests at 40-year lows and fresh evidence suggesting more people may be heading south of the border than north, officials struggled to fill the planes and found the costs increasingly difficult to justify. Flights carrying up to 146 people were cut to once from twice daily last year.
And this summer, there haven’t been any.
“Everything comes down to dollars and cents,” said George Allen, assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. “We’re running into a more budget-conscious society, especially with the government.”
He added: “Does it fit within our budget and is there an alternative that is not as effective but still effective?”
In an effort to keep the flights going, American authorities proposed mixing in Mexicans who commit crimes while living in the U.S. The Mexican government balked at seating hardened criminals next to families, elderly and the frail who recently crossed the border in search of work.
“Right off the bat, I can tell you that Mexico was not going to allow, nor will it ever allow, that kind of repatriation, which puts families’ safety at risk,” said Juan Manuel Calderon, the Mexican consul in Tucson.
U.S. and Mexican negotiators also discussed changing the route from El Paso, Texas, where many Mexicans with criminal records are held, to the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. In the past, the route has been from Tucson to Mexico City.
The flights may resume but not this year, U.S. and Mexican officials say. They have operated only in the summer and only in Arizona, designed as a humanitarian effort in response to the many migrants who have died over the last decade trekking through remote deserts in debilitating heat.
U.S. Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Mexico Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said in February that they planned to launch a pilot program April 1 to fly migrants arrested while living in the United States deep into Mexico. The pilot program was partly a response to complaints from Mexican border cities that too many deportees were being dumped on their streets and contributing to crime and unemployment.
“We wanted to maximize the flight and we couldn’t come to an agreement,” said Allen. “They were close. It may happen next year, but by the time it drug on, we got through July and for a short period of time, it wouldn’t have been realistic.”