WASHINGTON – Immigration officials this year flew fewer than 9,000 Mexican nationals home, the lowest number in the eight years of a voluntary government repatriation program.
The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program, which operates only in the summer, flew 8,893 Mexicans from Tucson to Mexico City during this year’s 80-day operation, which ended Wednesday. That is well below the record number of 23,384 Mexicans flown home by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year, when the program ran for 120 days.
ICE officials attributed the lower numbers in part to a shorter program this year, and a reduction in flights from two to one a day. But they said the biggest factor in the drop is that fewer people are crossing the border illegally in the first place.
“Because border apprehensions have gone down, there was no reason to have two flights a day,” said Vinnie Picard, a spokesman for the ICE office in Phoenix.
The flights began in 2004 as an attempt to prevent deaths of border-crossers in the Sonoran Desert during the hottest time of the year, Picard said.
Usually, when someone is caught entering the country illegally, Border Patrol simply takes him or her just across the border. The point of flying those people to Mexico City is to discourage them from trying to turn around and cross the border illegally again.
Once they land, they are greeted by Mexican officials and given bus tickets to their hometowns nearby, Picard said. Most of the immigrants who agree to the voluntary flight live in or near Mexico City, he said.
The program is run in partnership with the Mexican government, but primarily funded by the U.S. government.
In a prepared statement, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the program “offers countrymen who so choose the option of returning to their places of origin, to safeguard their physical integrity to avoid falling victim to human traffickers or risk suffering the desert areas.”
“It sought to preserve family unity during the repatriation,” said the statement in Spanish.
But pro-immigrant activists along the border disagree, calling the program little more than a public relations “trick.”
A spokesman for No More Deaths, a Tucson-based organization that keeps track of border violence, said that the program alone does not actually save lives or prevent violence along the border. And there is no guarantee that flying Mexicans to their country’s capital, more than 1,300 miles from the Arizona border, will actually discourage from trying to cross again.
“It doesn’t actually prevent death or violence, and really it’s just a PR trick,” said Adam Aguirre, a spokesman for the group.
Aguirre said the more border enforcement increases, the more migrants are forced to look for more dangerous ways to enter the country, leading them to “trust people they shouldn’t trust.”
He said there should be more of an investment in solving the root cause of why migrants want to enter illegally, which he says is economic oppression in countries such as Mexico.
“The (repatriation) program is just an insufficient Band-Aid,” Aguirre said.
The program has cost anywhere from $15.4 million in its first year to $5.5 million in 2009, when 10,560 Mexicans were repatriated, the smallest number until this year.
The total cost for the program this year is not yet available, said Picard, but is expected to cost between $9 million to $11 million.