NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — In what U.S. officials call a rescue mission and critics dismiss as costly folly, thousands of illegal immigrants caught in Arizona this month are being flown in handcuffs to four Texas cities for deportation to Mexico -- in the hope that they will not try again to sneak across the border in Arizona's killer desert heat.
The U.S. Border Patrol's "Lateral Repatriation Program" has drawn fire from both sides of the Rio Grande. It has opened a new rift between the Bush administration and President Vicente Fox, whose top foreign policy goal is better treatment for millions of undocumented Mexican laborers in the United States.
Border mayors in Texas and Mexico say the sudden influx of deportees could overwhelm their communities. Migration specialists warn that the effort will not work as a long-term deterrent. A Texas congressman opposed the initiative. So did Fox, whose government has also protested the use of handcuffs.
American officials insist that the experimental program, due to conclude Tuesday, is working. Since it began Sept. 8, they say, more than 5,000 immigrants have been removed from Arizona's "corridor of death." Only two immigrant fatalities have been reported during that time in a desert that had been averaging one per day over the summer.
"This program is going to reduce the number of people crossing, and it's going to reduce the number of people dying in the desert," Robert L. Harris, deputy chief of the Border Patrol, said in an interview.
But in recent comments at the international bridge here, where they are marched in single file from Laredo, Texas, deportees ridiculed the idea that they had been "rescued." Most said they planned to head straight back west for another death- defying trek to Arizona, where temperatures are higher than in Texas but no river stands in the way.
"They want us to give up and go home. But if we do that we will starve, and we know that in America our labor is in great demand," said Fermin Hidalgo, who abandoned a failing farm near Acapulco this month. He was nabbed on his way to seek work as a tree pruner in Chicago -- the kind of job, he said, that "the gringos are too lazy" to do.
Hidalgo, 42, complained that Border Patrol agents had kept him manacled even when he went to the toilet.
"What kind of salvation is that?" he said. "We are not hooligans. We came to your house to ask for work, not to steal."
The farmer was one of 141 deportees met on the bridge Sept. 17 by Daniel Hernandez, Mexico's consul in Laredo. The group, mostly dejected-looking men wearing baseball caps and backpacks, had been bused from Arizona border detention centers in Nogales, Naco and Douglas to Tucson, then flown 760 miles by charter aircraft to Laredo.
Some had been in Border Patrol custody -- and the adult males in handcuffs -- for as long as 40 hours. They had been given nothing more than a small hamburger and bottled water, they said. In the fog of exhaustion, some had missed the announcement about where they were going.
"First, you need to know where you are," the consul told the group after leading them to a Mexican customs post near the bridge. "You are in Nuevo Laredo."
Then he explained that each deportee was being offered, at Mexican government expense, a phone card, a meal at the diner next door, and bus fare to his or her hometown.
"I think I will go home, rest up and save some money for another trip to the border," said Daisy Marquez, 27, who had been earning $300 a month pumping gasoline in Culiacan, in western Mexico. She was arrested while on foot near Douglas, trying to get to her sister's home in Phoenix, 200 miles away, so she could look for a better job.
For two hours after the consul spoke, lines formed at the diner's service counter and single public phone. Calls went out. Calculations were made. Tortas and burritos were served. Money transfers were solicited from faraway relatives. Choices were debated.
As dusk gathered, it was time to decide. Agustin Gonzalez, a 25-year-old laid-off tire company worker from Guadalajara, admitted being frightened by his first venture into 100-degree desert heat. He and 25 others who opted to go home were driven to the bus terminal.
The other 115 scattered across this city of 311,000 people, seeking at least one night's shelter in public parks, cheap hotels and free hostels run by the city and the Roman Catholic Church while contemplating a new stab at the border.
Marquez changed her mind about going home. Beaming as she got off the phone, she said she had lined up two wire transfers -- one from her father in Culiacan to pay her way back to Agua Prieta, the tiny Mexican border town across from Douglas, and one from the uncle of a friend to live on until she could reach Arizona again.
Her sister in Phoenix, she said, was paying the $1,500 smuggler's fee.