PHOENIX -- More than 130 illegal immigrants were flown for free to the Mexican interior Monday on the first flight of a U.S. government program aimed at curbing repeat immigration attempts.
The flights are a voluntary alternative for illegal immigrants to the usual practice of being driven back only to the border, far from their hometowns.
The first commercial airliner carrying immigrants in the test program left Tucson for Mexico City on Monday afternoon.
Under the Department of Homeland Security's Interior Repatriation Program, immigrants can return on future flights to either Mexico City or Guadalajara. From there, they are bused to their hometowns.
"This is a well-coordinated, crucial step that is necessary for both humanitarian and law enforcement reasons," said Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for border and transportation security, in a written statement.
"The deaths of so many in the desert are a tragedy that must end," he said.
Andy Adame, a spokesman with the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said about 30 of Monday's passengers were considered at high risk of dying in the desert if they attempted a second crossing. They included single women with children and the elderly.
The department is funding the program, which is estimated to cost $12 million to $13 million at two flights per day, each carrying up to 150 illegal immigrants, Adame said.
The pilot program is to end by Sept. 30. Then the department and the Mexican government will evaluate it.
The new program follows a more controversial one in which border officials involuntarily returned 5,600 migrants caught in Arizona to Mexico through border ports in Texas.
The so-called lateral repatriation program, which lasted about three weeks in September, was designed to move the immigrants far from their smugglers and reduce their chances of recrossing the border. Immigrants rights groups said the program was expensive, ineffective and simply delayed migrants.
Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, a group that puts water in the desert for illegal crossers, said he has concerns about the new program.
"Overall, I would say this is a ridiculous way to approach this problem. It uses a phenomenal amount of resources and achieves little results," he said.
He conceded the program could benefit some immigrants.
"It may actually save a few lives, and we have to give them credit for that," he said.
On the Net:
Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/index.jsp
Humane Borders: http://www.humaneborders.org/