Mesa airport ranks as the nation's busiest air deportation hub

Mar 4, 2007

PHOENIX -- An airport in Mesa is the busiest air deportation hub in the nation and has seen its number of deportations skyrocket in the past three years.

Deportations at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa have risen sharply from about 6,150 in fiscal year 2003 to about 15,914 last year.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say that is because Arizona is the country's main crossing point for illegal immigrants and has two large detention centers in Florence and Eloy.

The former military base in Mesa and an airport in Alexandria, La., are the only major air transportation hubs in the U.S. for deporting non-Mexicans to their home countries.

The taxpayer-funded flights have helped cut deportation times by months, removing about 51,300 non-Mexicans from Oct. 1, 2005 to Sept. 30, 2006, mostly to countries in Central and South America, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

The flights have been key to ending the government's long-standing policy of releasing thousands of non-Mexicans into the United States pending immigration hearings and serve as a deterrent to illegal immigration, officials say.

Analysts say the flights also are central to President Bush's political efforts to curry favor with hard-liners in hopes of coaxing a comprehensive immigration bill out of Congress. The flights were expected to increase as the administration pushes for stronger enforcement.

The flights already have increased fivefold since 2001. They carried more than 116,000 passengers last fiscal year, enough to rival some small U.S. airlines. That total consists of the 51,300 non-Mexican deportations and 64,700 illegal immigrants flown from the interior of the United States to centers like the one in Mesa to be deported.

In fiscal year 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the agency spent more than $70 million flying illegal immigrants home or to the border. In addition, an October inspector general's report sampling flights from Mesa and other air deportation hubs found planes that frequently flew less than half full.

Bush has vowed to end "catch-and-release," the practice of arresting non-Mexican illegal immigrants, processing them and then releasing them here pending immigration hearings.

More than 85 percent of the illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol crossing the southern border are Mexicans. Most are sent back home within 24 hours.

But sending illegal immigrants from other countries back home isn't as easy. In the past, the government often lacked enough detention space to hold them while legal paperwork was processed. So non-Mexicans were simply freed and told to return later for court hearings.

The problem peaked in 2003 and 2004. Thousands of illegal immigrants from Brazil and Central America started flooding across the Arizona and Texas borders. Most disappeared after being released.

Illegal immigrants are less likely to cross if they know they will be quickly sent home rather than set free pending immigration hearings, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

Pablo Campos, who oversees the air transportation system for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, D.C., said the agency tries to keep deportation flights full by making stops in several countries when there aren't enough from one country to fill the aircraft.

But immigration officials say filling every flight isn't always possible. Top priority is given to removing illegal immigrants from the United States quickly to clear space in detention centers. Some countries limit the number of illegal immigrants with criminal records they will receive at one time.