by Daniel González- Aug. 21, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The Department of Homeland Security continues to spend millions of dollars flying illegal immigrants caught along the Arizona border back to Mexico each summer even though government officials and humanitarian groups question whether the program is effective or worth the cost.
The agency has spent more than $85 million over the past eight years to transport Mexican illegal immigrants far beyond the border in a humanitarian effort aimed at saving lives by deterring migrants from making another dangerous border crossing.
But it has no real way to gauge the value of the program.
Though the department defends its repatriation flights, officials chose not to act on recommendations by government auditors to measure whether the program is effective.
Both DHS and Mexican officials insist it works. They say that flying thousands of apprehended migrants 1,100 miles into Mexico instead of simply dropping them off at the border makes the migrants less likely to hook up again with human smugglers and try to cross through Arizona’s rugged, remote desert, where over the years hundreds of migrants have died in the brutal summer heat.
But some humanitarian groups say it is a waste of money because migrant deaths have continued to rise, and the Government Accountability Office has been critical of the lack of accountability.
DHS officials say they don’t set specific performance targets for the program, which was created in cooperation with the Mexican government, because it would be counterproductive to try to measure its effectiveness in the same way as other border-enforcement strategies. They say its intent is humanitarian and not specifically an enforcement mechanism.
Since 2004, the government has repatriated 102,201 migrants to Mexico under the program, including 23,384 last year, the highest number of any year, according to figures released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Government data shows that migrant deaths in Arizona have gone up 75 percent in that time. But because the government maintains only partial records of what happens to people flown home, there is no way to know how many of them later die attempting to return.
The available information shows at least some do return.
Records obtained by The Arizona Republic show that within months, hundreds of the migrants flown back to Mexico – each at a cost of more than $500 – are caught crossing illegally again.
That, says one non-government humanitarian group, is evidence that the program has not been effective.
“We believe (the flights) are a wasteful use of money,” said Jaime Farrant, policy director for the Border Action Network, a Tucson-based human-rights group that advocates for immigrants.
Humanitarian groups say the program fails to address the larger reasons migrants risk their lives crossing the border.
The flights known as the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program, which operate for only a limited period in the summer, began again this year on July 11 and will continue once daily until Sept. 28. The government is expected to spend $9 million to $11 million on the program this year, ICE officials have said.
Ordinarily, illegal immigrants from Mexico apprehended by the Border Patrol are driven to the U.S. side of the border, where agents watch as they walk back to Mexico through entry ports. Once on the other side, many simply reconnect with smugglers and attempt to re-enter illegally.
The program is designed to identify migrants from states beyond the border. They are voluntarily flown deep inside Mexico and given bus tickets to their hometowns.
The entire cost of transportation is borne by the U.S. government.
For months, President Barack Obama and members of his administration have touted statistics that demonstrate how his commitment to beefing up security and cracking down on illegal immigrants has resulted in a safer border and a sharp decrease in apprehensions along the southwestern border.
One initiative they usually don’t mention is the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program.
DHS officials say the primary intent of the program is to save lives and to break the connection between migrants and the smugglers who help lead them across the border and into Arizona.
But statistics do not show the kind of significant improvements that the administration is able to cite in other areas of border security: From fiscal 2008 to 2010, apprehensions are down 36 percent, reflecting fewer crossings, and seizures of drugs are up 31 percent, a sign of heightened patrols.
In fiscal year 2004, the year the repatriation program started, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector tallied 142 migrant deaths. Since then, the number of deaths has fluctuated, going down occasionally but rising most years. Last year, the Border Patrol counted 249 in the Tucson Sector, a record high. The sector covers most of Arizona’s 372.5-mile border with Mexico.
So far this year, the sector has logged 132 migrant deaths, down 38 percent compared with the same period last year.
In all, a total of 1,496 migrants have perished in the Tucson Sector over the past eight fiscal years, the Border Patrol said.
Mexican officials and some immigrant groups say deaths have gone up because tighter border enforcement has pushed smugglers and migrants into more-remote and more-dangerous routes through the desert.
The program attempts to prevent illegal migrants from risking a repeat crossing, but data shows some of those flown back to Mexico on U.S.-funded flights often return to the border and try again.
Last year, more than 12 percent of the 23,384 migrants flown back to Mexico were rearrested by the Border Patrol just during the months the program was in operation. The year before, 6.5 percent of the 10,550 participants were rearrested during the summer, while the program was running, the Border Patrol said.
And in fiscal year 2008, nearly 10 percent of the 18,464 participants were rearrested during the course of the program, the Border Patrol said.
Border Patrol figures show that the program’s participants were arrested at lower rates trying to re-enter the U.S. than the Tucson Sector’s overall 30 percent recidivism rate, at least while the program was in operation.
But it is impossible to fully measure the program’s overall effectiveness because the Border Patrol would provide recidivism rates for the program only for fiscal years 2008-10, and only for the weeks the program was in operation. The Arizona Republic requested recidivism rates for all eight years of the program, not just the three provided. The Republic also asked for complete recidivism rates showing how often the program’s participants were rearrested by the Border Patrol at any time, not just during the program’s operation.
The Border Patrol turned down those requests.
Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Tucson, said the agency did not formally track recidivism rates during the first five years of the program. And during the last three years, the Border Patrol tracked participants only while the program was operating. Trying to track all 102,201 participants retroactively since fiscal year 2004 would be “a logistical nightmare,” Adame said.
On average, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector is apprehending about 220 migrants a day this summer. Of those, about 130 to 150 are being flown back to Mexico each day, he said.
The remaining 70 to 90 are prosecuted under an 8-month-old program that formally charges most migrants apprehended at the border with illegal entry. Once prosecuted, they are deported and risk jail time or being banned from the U.S. if caught re-entering.
After being apprehended by Border Patrol agents out in the desert, migrants are driven to one of eight Border Patrol stations in the Tucson Sector where their fingerprints are run through a computer database to check for criminal history or outstanding warrants.
Those without either, and who are from states other than neighboring Sonora, are given the option of being flown back to Mexico. They are interviewed by Mexican consular officials at the Border Patrol station in Nogales to ensure that they are participating voluntarily.
The migrants are then driven to the Tucson airport and flown to Mexico City on chartered flights, typically within 24 hours. Once in Mexico, they are given bus tickets to their hometowns.
“We encourage people to take the (flights) to get them out of the smuggling cycle,” Adame said. “The primary objective of the (program) is to break that smuggling cycle. We are looking at that first: Less people in the desert (means) less chance of people dying out there. Keeping people away from the border is what we are trying to do with the MIRP program.”
Results not tracked
A 2010 Government Accountability Office review of the Department of Homeland Security’s anti-smuggling operations along the Southwest border faulted ICE for failing to track how effective the program is in achieving its goals.
Without proper monitoring, “ICE does not know the effectiveness of its efforts related to MIRP at deterring individuals from illegally returning to the United States,” the report said.
According to the report, officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, did not agree with the report’s recommendation to establish procedures for measuring results.
DHS officials believed that establishing such measures “would shift its focus away from the program’s original lifesaving intent,” the report said.
Vincent Picard, a spokesman for ICE in Phoenix, said in an e-mail that the agency continues to stand by that position.
The program was designed as a bilateral effort between the United States and Mexico to reduce the loss of human life and to reduce the potential for exploitation of illegal migrants by human-smuggling organizations, he said.
“The mission of MIRP is humanitarian in focus and ICE believes that assigning removal goals would undermine the spirit by which the program was conceived with Mexico,” Picard said in the e-mail. “ICE does not have separate performance measures specific to MIRP; however, MIRP returns contribute to overall ICE performance targets for removals and returns.”
Rolando Garcia-Alonso, coordinator of international relations for Mexico’s National Migration Institute in Mexico City, said he believes the program is effective because it greatly reduces the chances migrants will try to cross again.
He said at least 80 percent of migrants who are repatriated at the border simply reconnect with smugglers and turn around and try to cross again. Each time they try, they are more fatigued, and therefore the chance of dying increases.
Repatriating migrants at the border “is a complete failure,” he said.
On the other hand, though some migrants flown to the interior of Mexico try to cross again, most don’t, he said.
“For me, that is a huge success,” he said.
He attributed the increase in migrant deaths since 2004 to migrants and smuggling organizations taking more-remote and more-hazardous routes through the desert in order to evade stepped-up border security in the U.S.
Without the program, “there would be even bigger” numbers of migrant deaths, he said.
Garcia-Alonso said the Mexican government incurs some of the cost of the program. While the United States pays for the flights and bus tickets, the Mexican government covers the cost of providing staff from the Mexican consulate in Tucson to interview migrants before they board the flights. The Mexican government also incurs costs interviewing migrants when they arrive in Mexico City, and pays for public programs to help migrants find jobs or start businesses so they will be less likely to cross again.
Adam Aguirre, a spokesman for No More Deaths, a Tucson-based group that provides water and other humanitarian aid to migrants found in distress near the border, called the program a “quick fix” to a much larger problem.
Without more legal channels to enter the U.S., he said, migrants will continue to risk their lives crossing illegally as long as there are good-paying jobs available in the U.S. and a lack of them in Mexico.
“As far as quick fixes, anything like this is going to be inadequate,” Aquirre said of the flights. “The fact of the matter is there are no quick fixes.”
A lot of illegal immigrants take the bus to the border from their home towns in the interior of Mexico.
Mexico has an excellent and affordable bus system.
So flying an illegal alien down to Mexico City and giving them a bus ticket to go “home” affords the immigrant a chance to trade the ticket in for one back to Nogales.
Or they just buy another bus ticket back to Nogales.
Word on the street is the fee paid to coyotes for getting across the border has a multiple try element….and with the cost running $2,000 and above a lot of people are not going to waste the coyote fee for lack of a bus ticket for the second try.
What is shocking is DHS really doesn’t want to know how many illegal immigrants they spent $500 to fly back to Mexico City have attempted to re-cross…and how many have succeeded on their second or third try.
This all avoids a more basic issue…if the border was secured at the border and no one was getting into the US…the death rate for illegal immigrants would be zero because they would not be out there dying of heat and thirst.
But the US cannot secure the border at the border because of conflicting goals with federal land managers and the Endangered Species Act. The border simply cannot be secured on federally-managed lands until the US gets its prioriities straight.