“We’re trying to reduce attempted reentry into the United States and minimize the potential for exploitation of people who are removed to Mexico and their loss of life,” said Tim Robbins, an ICE official who coordinates the flight program, known as the Interior Repatriation Initiative.
The program is also built on the assumption that deportees sent to their home communities might stay there. But U.S. and Mexican officials acknowledge that they’re not sure whether that’s true.
As part of the arrangement with ICE, the Mexican government provides returning deportees with a bus ticket from the Mexico City airport to anywhere in the country, as long as their destination is not a border state.
The joint effort is part of broader bilateral cooperation on immigration issues that the Obama administration and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto are looking to highlight amid doubts about the health of their drug-war partnership.
Last week, top officials from both countries announced plans to better coordinate patrols and information-sharing along the border, and officials here have pledged to tighten controls in southern Mexico to catch more U.S.-bound Central American migrants and collect their biometric data.
Still, the deportee flights from El Paso to Mexico City aboard “ICE Air” — the agency’s name for its charters — represent the first time that U.S. authorities are sending home Mexican returnees by air on a large-scale, sustained basis, after a trial run last fall.
The vast majority of Mexicans will continue to be repatriated at land border crossings in cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. They are often sent back in large groups and sometimes dropped off at night, when few services are available and gangs rule the streets.
“Kidnappers know that deportees have relatives and family members in the U.S. who can be extorted,” said Jorge Durand, an immigration expert at Mexico’s University of Guadalajara.
“It used to be that crossing into the United States was dangerous,” he said. “Now, it’s coming back, too.”
Details of flights
During the first six months of 2013, more than 50,000 Mexicans deported from the United States ended up in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, whose border cities are major drug-cartel battlegrounds and are considered by U.S. State Department officials to be virtual no-go zones.
The kidnapping rate in Tamaulipas is the highest in Mexico, after doubling last year, according to State Department travel warnings.