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U.S., Mexico OK Deportation by Air

Illegal migrants caught in Arizona could agree to return to their hometowns in the interior instead of just recrossing the border.

June 09, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and Mexico have worked out a plan to return migrants caught illegally crossing the Arizona border back to their hometowns in the country's interior, U.S. and Mexican officials said Tuesday.

Flights could start later this month, the officials said.

By moving the migrants deep into Mexico -- instead of just over the border -- U.S. officials are hoping to keep them out of the hands of smugglers and discourage other attempts at entering the United States. Border Patrol officials are hoping that thousands of migrants, weary and out of cash after a fruitless desert crossing, will volunteer to go home.

"They will have been walking around in the desert for days, and they'll realize this is not something they want to do again," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "Normally, what we're doing is putting them back across the border. Now we can say, 'Here are your options: We can get you back to your house.' "

The Mexican government insisted that the so-called deep repatriation program be strictly voluntary, because Mexico's constitution guarantees citizens the right to travel freely within its borders. Mexican consular officials will certify that each participant has voluntarily made the decision to go back.

U.S. officials said they were hoping that 300 to 400 illegal migrants a week would take the offer. Washington will pay the estimated $13 million cost of air and bus transportation to their hometowns for the program, which initially will run through the end of September. Mexican airlines will be allowed to bid on the charter flight contracts.

U.S. officials have pledged to "do all possible" to avoid the use of shackles, restraints and handcuffs in transporting the returning migrants.

In Mexico City on Tuesday, officials of President Vicente Fox's administration outlined the plan at a congressional hearing.

"It is possible that the program could begin in the next few days," Geronimo Gutierrez, Mexico's undersecretary for North American affairs, said in an interview with Mexican media.

The United States has long pushed for such a program, but Mexico resisted. This time, Gutierrez said, the two governments approached the problem in a cooperative spirit.

"We decided on this in a joint manner," said Gutierrez. "There is a bilateral approach to this issue, and we are trying to assure that all the operational questions are resolved before we begin."

After an initial period of time, the program will be evaluated by both governments.

As of early May, more than 80 migrants had died during border crossings this year, and apprehensions were up by more than 50%. And that was before the peak season for crossing, which runs until September.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has launched a major enforcement effort in Arizona, aiming to catch illegal immigrants, break up smuggling rings and prevent deaths. Some administration officials believe the success of the proposed operation is critical to any future immigration reform plan. Unless the government can do better at controlling the border, they contend, the American public will be reluctant to accept a new guest-worker program and legalization of those already here.

The Border Patrol has long maintained that "deep repatriation" should be a key element of any enforcement plan. Agents say they feel a sense of futility in merely putting migrants back across the border.

"This has got to be seen as a deterrent," said a Homeland Security official who also asked not to be identified. But the official said no one knew how many Mexicans would agree to abandon their hopes of a better life in the U.S. and voluntarily return to their hometowns.

"It's going to be tough," he said.

U.S. officials said the flights would depart from Tucson to Mexico City and Guadalajara. From there, returning migrants will receive bus transportation to get them home. U.S. and Mexican officials are trying to set up a verification system to ensure that those who accept the offer of a free trip home do in fact follow through.

Mexican consulate officials in the Southwest are expected to play a central role in the program. Consular officials will be assigned to interview the migrants in Tucson, making sure that they have voluntarily agreed to go home. U.S. officials hope that the consuls will help persuade migrants who are at greatest risk, such as those traveling with children, to return.

"There is a life-saving aspect to this," said the Homeland Security official. "We are trying to get them out of harm's way in the desert. I think you will get some people who have no money, who feel helpless, to say 'yes.' A good number will feel that way. But the persistent ones are going to say, 'Hell if I'm going back.' "

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