Tucson Region
Migrants' free return flights to end

Report: Program impossible to link to border deaths
the associated press
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 09.21.2006

PHOENIX — Free flights to Mexico for illegal immigrants caught in Arizona will end on Sept. 30, and U.S. officials have not yet decided if the repatriation program will resume next summer.
Since July, the Department of Homeland Security has given more than 12,000 undocumented immigrants free flights into Mexico City as part of a three-year-old program federal officials have credited with saving lives in the Arizona desert.
However, a new Government Accountability Office report found no direct correlation between the number of border deaths and the repatriation program.
The GAO found it was "not possible to determine the program's impact on recidivism rates and deaths with certainty," adding that deaths fluctuate based on a number of factors including Border Patrol enforcement efforts.
Top Homeland Security officials have pledged to cut costs for the repatriation program, which has an annual price tag of about $15 million.
The U.S. Border Patrol made 1.1 million arrests last year, but only about 1 percent of undocumented immigrants took advantage of the free flights.
The federal government launched the program in Tucson in the summer of 2004, after years of record-setting death tolls along the Arizona-Mexico border.
The program was part of the Arizona Border Control Initiative, a multimillion-dollar push to crack down on some of the most heavily trafficked stretches of the U.S.-Mexican border.
As part of an agreement with the Mexican government, U.S. officials paid for twice-daily charter flights into Mexico for any illegal immigrant willing to return home after being caught in Arizona.
Officials said the goal was to save lives and also break the smuggling cycle along the border. Mexican illegal immigrants are usually returned to the nearest border crossing after being caught, which officials say can put border crossers in a position to quickly try a return trip to the U.S.
Under the program, undocumented immigrants from Mexico detained in Arizona in the summer are asked if they would like be returned to the border or flown to Mexico City, where the Mexican government pays for a bus ticket to their hometown. If the migrants tell immigration officials they want to go home, they have a second interview with Mexican consular officials who try to make sure they didn't feel pressured to agree.
During the summer of 2004, about 14,000 undocumented immigrants were flown back into Mexico. While the flights were offered, the Border Patrol recorded 14 exposure-related deaths in the Tucson Sector, which covers most of the Arizona-Mexico border, compared with 45 during the same time in 2003.
Ten percent, roughly 1,360, of those flown home were caught trying to cross again during the program. During the same period, 32 percent of those arrested who opted out of the flights were arrested again, according to Border Patrol statistics.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the program is clearly not a total solution, but added, "If it does anything to reduce even one death, I'm essentially supportive of it."