ATLANTA — The United States and Mexico are negotiating plans to start deporting criminal illegal immigrants deep into Mexico rather than releasing them at the border, hoping to stop adding to the criminal chaos south of the border.
Some possible outcomes are fewer repeat illegal border crossings and fewer deportation flights originating from the States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
Last fiscal year, the government spent $120.9 million deporting 182,655 people by plane. Of those, 17,777 were flown out of Columbus Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to ICE. And most of them — 13,806 — were deported to Mexico.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was recently given access to one of those flights, where the newspaper found most on the plane had criminal records. They were being flown to a small town in Texas, where they would be bused to the border. Several of those interviewed said they were upset about leaving their U.S.-born children and frightened of returning to Mexico amid the gruesome drug gang violence there. The government is now flying most Mexican illegal immigrants to Arizona and Texas and releasing them at Mexican ports of entry along the border.
The deliberations between the two nations jibe with the Obama administration’s emphasis on deporting criminal illegal immigrants. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano advanced the talks with Mexico officials in February when she signed a memorandum of cooperation with them. ICE officials declined to release a copy of that memo. But they provided some details during interviews this month, saying the plans could involve year-round flights from some U.S. border states into Mexico.
“The (memo) is very broad and it is not very long,” said Craig Charles, deputy assistant director for ICE’s air operations.
The Mexican embassy in Washington issued a prepared statement, saying the memo signed by the two nations “is part of the broader efforts by the relevant agencies to ensure secure, orderly and humane repatriation procedures. Both countries remain committed to this objective.”
The idea is not new. The federal government flew more than 102,000 illegal immigrants to the interior of Mexico over the last eight years as part of a voluntary humanitarian program designed to stop human smuggling and save lives. But that program does not focus on criminals. Rather, it applies to illegal immigrants found in the Arizona-Sonora desert region in the United States. And it operates only during the summer. Meanwhile, Mexican and U.S. officials have not yet decided whether that program will continue, ICE officials said this month.
Two experts on Mexican immigration and U.S.-Mexican relations sharply criticized the government’s latest plan for what they called “deep repatriation.” Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, said there “is absolutely no evidence that it reduces recidivism. He and David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, said some deportees would have strong reasons to return to the United States, including jobs and families living in the States.
“It is politically attractive to do this kind of stuff,” Cornelius said. “But it is essentially a waste of taxpayer money, if the objective is to keep deportees back in their places of origin.”
Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates for tighter immigration controls, said such a plan could help curb illegal immigration in the United States. But he said it must be part of a broader crackdown on the problem, including blocking illegal immigrants from getting jobs and public benefits here.
“It is sort of like diet and exercise,” he said. “If you want to control your weight and get this thing under control, you have got to do all these things. … There is no silver bullet here.”
This month, ICE gave reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Mundo Hispanico — both of which are owned by Cox Media Group — access to a deportation flight from Atlanta’s airport.
Roughly 100 shackled deportees arrived at the airport on buses from an ICE detention center in Stewart County, 145 miles south of Atlanta. Some were leaving family here. Others were nervous about the rampant drug violence, extortion and beheadings plaguing Mexico.
Most had committed crimes while they were here, everything from minor traffic offenses to violence. Some had been deported before.
Their flight was bound for Harlingen, a small Texas town near the border with Mexico. Once ICE flights arrive there, the deportees are bused to a Mexican port of entry.
Among the men on the plane was Martin Ballesteros, 28, a stocky and soft-spoken illegal immigrant from Mexico City. He said he came here with his father as a teenager to find work. He has been deported twice before, once in 2006 and once in 2008. He also has a criminal record in the United States, having been convicted of burglary and possession of burglary tools, according to ICE. He said police arrested him for driving without a license in Pearson, Ga., prompting his most recent deportation.
Ballesteros said he kept returning to the United States to support his wife and three U.S.-born children in Waycross, where he worked in a recycling plant. He said he has a fourth child in Mexico. Ballesteros said he was worried about returning to his native country because the violent Zetas drug cartel kidnapped him there in March of 2009. He said the gang released him because he didn’t have any money.
“They wanted $3,000,” he said.
For protection, Ballesteros said he and many other deportees on his bus planned to travel together once they arrived in Mexico.
Salvador Alejandro Hernandez, 39, was also nervous about returning to Mexico.
“From what I hear and from what I see on TV, it’s extremely dangerous,” he said. “I’m scared to death. I don’t know the country – I was raised here.”
He said his mother illegally brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was an infant. He said he had legal status here but lost it after several convictions. He has been convicted of criminal damage to property, driving under the influence of alcohol twice and domestic violence involving his then-girlfriend.
Hernandez lived in Decatur, Ga. He has four U.S.-born children. He said he had no clue what he’ll do for a living in Mexico. He said he can speak Spanish well but can’t read or write it.
Moments before he was escorted back to the bus, he gave reporters a phone number for his mother, a U.S. citizen who lives in Atlanta.
“Tell my mom I love her and not to worry,” he said, “and that I will call her just as soon as I can.”