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Rights Groups Take On Deportation Program

Action deprives illegal immigrants of a hearing and fails to address why they come, activists say.

August 30, 2004|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

A growing protest over a voluntary repatriation program for Mexicans has spurred immigrant rights groups in Southern California to launch a campaign aimed at thwarting the initiative.

The $12-million program, which started in July and is a collaboration between the United States and Mexico, targets Mexicans caught illegally crossing America's southwestern border, many of whom trek across the Sonoran Desert. The migrants are picked up and subsequently offered a free flight from Tucson to Guadalajara or Mexico City, where they are given vouchers for bus rides home.

Pro-immigration activists argue that the initiative violates immigrants' right to a fair hearing before being deported, separates families and fails to address why so many Mexicans are willing to risk crossing illegally into the United States.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said there were no plans to expand the repatriation program outside the Tucson area. But activists fear that may change.

"If there's no opposition, they always have the option of taking it to Texas and to California and expanding it inland," said Angela Sambrano, a representative for the Los Angeles Committee Against the Raids and for Rights of Immigrants. "We don't want them to get any idea that we would welcome an extension of [it]. That's why we want to stop it right now."

Sambrano recently joined delegations of other pro-immigration activists to deliver letters to Mexican consulates across the country -- including seven in California -- urging President Vicente Fox's administration to abandon support for the program. The protesters say that if their quest for dialogue fails, they may stage vigils and demonstrations.

Gloria Chavez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the program was constantly being evaluated. But for now, two flights from Tucson would continue daily through the end of September. "We're still getting a number of people who have volunteered," she said.

Carlos de Icaza, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, said that as of Aug. 17, there have been 6,084 migrants repatriated to Mexico from the Tucson region.

U.S. officials say the program makes migrants less vulnerable to smugglers and other dangers as they try to cross the desert. And having access to transportation directly to their hometown -- instead of being stuck in squalid conditions in a border town -- may deter migrants from further attempts at returning north, the officials contend.

"The expectation is that this program will help to save lives," De Icaza said. "The program is working."

Between 2,500 and 2,700 migrants attempting to cross America's southwestern border are captured daily, U.S. officials said; and since October, 263 have died trying. Many succumb to dehydration, heat exhaustion, drowning or motor vehicle accidents.

Immigrant rights groups in California say such tragedies underscore why U.S. and Mexican authorities should channel resources into combating the job shortage in Mexico, one of the prime reasons migrants cross the border.

"As long as there is poverty south of the border and the need for cheap labor in the United States, you're going to have this problem," said Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, a not-for-profit group that provides social and legal assistance to immigrants in Riverside County. "We need to find a more reasonable approach to the migration problem."

"The immigration law is dysfunctional," Sambrano said. "It's broken, and it needs to be fixed so that it is easier for people to immigrate here legally."

The activists also contend that few migrants who are caught go home willingly. Instead, they say, U.S. immigration officials and Mexican consular officers force them to return.

"Border patrol officers have become de facto immigration judges," Sambrano said.

U.S. border protection officials disagree. They say that those caught are typically returned as soon as possible through their point of entry, and that few would qualify for political asylum.

Chavez said many who have attempted to cross were now thankful for a program that delivered them home -- all expenses paid.

"These volunteers are tired of living at the border," the official said. "They want to return to their home. We see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to prevent the loss of life."

But critics say many migrants view a trip home as a temporary setback.

"It's nothing more than a shell game," said Jennifer Allen, executive director of Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigration advocacy group. "It's just shifting migrants from place to place."

And many are simply not willing to stay put. "Sometimes, the same day, they already start their trip back to the United States," Sambrano said.

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