Security conditions have grown so dire in Mexican border towns that U.S. immigration authorities have begun flying some deportees to Mexico City, rather than releasing them into areas where they could be targeted by kidnappers and smuggling gangs.
The twice-weekly flights operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carry only a fraction of the nearly 300,000 Mexican nationals returned by the Obama administration each year. But flying deportees deep into Mexico could save lives by discouraging them from attempting another desperate illegal crossing, ICE officials say.
“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.”
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.
The flights to Mexico City, by comparison, can carry just 270 passengers a week. “In the end, that’s a very small number compared to the overall number of deportations from Mexico,” said Maureen Meyer, a senior researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“It’s an important measure to reduce risks for some people, but it’s not going to be a long-term solution because of the costs involved,” she said.
On average, ICE Air operates 27 flights each week, mostly to Central America, and the cost per deportee is about $500, according to the agency, regardless of whether the passenger is bound for Mexico City, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries in the region.
The Mexican government gives returning migrants a medical exam, a box lunch and a phone card, said Erick Hernández, a Mexican immigration official.
“The goal is an orderly, safe repatriation that provides better services and increases the chance that deportees will have better opportunities to remain home and remain in Mexico,” Hernández said.
Mexican authorities are also providing employment counseling to the deportees when they land at the airport.
Still, under the terms of the program, a deportee from southern Mexico who wishes to return to the United States could request a bus ticket to cities in northern Mexico that are not in border states, Hernández acknowledged.
Since 2004, ICE has offered deportation flights to Mexican nationals on a limited, voluntary basis, mostly to relocate would-be migrants away from desert areas where deaths from exposure increase during summer.
The new ICE flights to Mexico City are not voluntary. If a deportee requests to be released into a border city but is not from that area, it is often a sign that the person plans to attempt reentry into the United States, ICE officials say, making the deportee an even better candidate for a one-way trip deep into Mexico.
The deportees are interviewed by Mexican consular officials in El Paso before departure, and no one is forced onto the flights, said Mexican Foreign Ministry official Reyna Torres, who coordinates the program with ICE. “The idea is to work together for a better outcome,” she said.
The flights will continue to the end of the year on a twice-weekly basis but could be increased, officials said, particularly if they are effective in discouraging reentry.
Although the flights represent an added cost for ICE, expanded cooperation on immigration issues with Mexican authorities could bring the agency significant long-term savings.
Illegal immigration to the United States is at its lowest levels since the early 1970s, but Central American migrants represent a larger share than ever of illegal border-crossers. A portion of the $2 billion U.S. security aid package to Mexico, the Merida Initiative, is helping provide training and technology for customs agents and border guards in southern Mexico.
But Mexico has its own interests in firming up its porous southern border, analysts say.
“Mexico isn’t only doing this because of some calculus with the United States,” said Eric Olson, a Central America scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “It has legitimate concerns that the southern border is a vulnerability.”