Program to deport Mexican migrants far from where they crossed
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Migrants caught in the deserts of Arizona are being put on planes by the U.S. Border Patrol and deported hundreds of miles away along Texas' southern border, in many cases to cities in Mexico they've never seen.
U.S. officials say deporting migrants from Texas -- instead of at the border where they crossed -- reduces repeat attempts and cuts migrants' links to the smuggling networks in Arizona, the most popular route for undocumented crossings.
The pilot program has caused anger on the Mexican side, where town officials say they are ill-equipped for the influx of deportees.
"We don't like Juarez being used as a point for massive deportations," city spokesman Ricardo Chavez said. "The city is not prepared to deal with this, and there is already a shortage of jobs here. It's a bad situation. People are sleeping in parks and under bridges."
The program has created a class of unwanted people, ejected from the U.S. side of the border to the Mexican cities of Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros. Once they are in Mexico, city officials often hustle the migrants aboard public buses, give them a free meal and rush them to the nearest terminal with a bus ticket out of town.
"They shouldn't deport us so far away, in places where we don't know anybody," said Cesar Pinacho, 26, a cannery worker who has slept in a Ciudad Juarez park and the yard of a nearby house since he was deported several days ago.
The pilot program started Sept. 8 and is set to end Tuesday, but U.S. officials say they may revive it because they consider it a success.
It has taken more than 3,000 migrants from the Arizona desert, where authorities were recording roughly one migrant death per day, usually from dehydration or heatstroke.
"Since the program started, we haven't had a single migrant death" in the Arizona desert, said Frank Amarillas, a Border Patrol spokesman. "If you can't take the danger out of the border, you can take the immigrant away from the danger."
The migrants are placed aboard chartered flights to four cities along the more populated and better-guarded Texas border.
More than 1,100 have been deported to Ciudad Juarez, swelling the normal flow of deportees by more than a third.
Smugglers in the Arizona desert often agree to try as many times as needed to get a migrant across. Some agree to receive payment once a migrant reaches a U.S. city, and deporting their clients so far away hurts their income.
U.S. officials say only a fraction of those deported through the program are caught trying to sneak across the border again in Texas, and total detentions in the Arizona desert fell 19 percent after the program started.
Returning to the Arizona border from Texas is difficult and costly because the region in between is desolate, with few roads or cities.
The Mexican government has protested the U.S. practice of handcuffing migrants with a chain that wraps around their waists during the airplane ride.
Treated like criminals
"If they have to deport us, they shouldn't treat us like criminals," said Martin Romero, 38, a field worker from Durango. "It's humiliating. We're just working people."
Responding to other concerns about the program, the Border Patrol has halted the deportation of female migrants to Ciudad Juarez, a city plagued by a series of slayings of young women over the past decade.
The patrol also has tried to deport relatives through the same city, after complaints that families were split up and had a hard time finding each other on the Mexican side.
While one of the biggest complaints is the dislocation caused by the long-distance deportations, the Mexican government rejected a U.S. offer to deport undocumented migrants back to their hometowns, at the U.S. government's expense.
Mexican Assistant Foreign Secretary Enrique Berruga said a previous program that deported migrants home in the mid-1990s was abandoned because Mexicans objected to being flown home.
"That kind of thing has been tried before," Berruga said. "I don't think anything has changed to expect any different results this time."
There are signs, however, that Mexico is cooperating with U.S. efforts. Mexican officials have been hesitant to give returning migrants free bus tickets to one of the destinations they requested most -- Agua Prieta, the jumping-off point for undocumented trips across the Arizona desert.
Juventino Gonzalez, a 28-year-old dishwasher from Chimalhuacan, near Mexico City, was a repeat offender.
He and his friend were caught in Arizona last week after trudging seven hours through the desert. Deported through McAllen, Texas, they spent the last of their money to return to the Arizona desert and try again with the same smuggler -- only to be caught and deported through El Paso, Texas, across from Ciudad Juarez.
"Of course we're going to try again. We can't go home beaten and with empty hands," he said, sitting in a public park and planning his next crossing. "We're going to try and get ahead. All they are doing with this program is making our lives harder."