TUCSON, Arizona - The U.S. government has spent more than $51 million over the past four summers flying nearly 64,000 illegal immigrants back to the Mexican interior after they were caught crossing the border.
The flights are aimed at reducing the chances of immigrants recrossing the border by flying them to Mexico City, rather than busing them back to the Mexican border where they are susceptible to smugglers awaiting them with offers to try again. Illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico can't take the flights.
But the Arizona Daily Star reported Sunday that critics said the program hasn't made a substantial difference in lessening smuggling or the number of deaths that occur as immigrants sneak across the border.
In the 362 days the voluntary flights were offered during 2004-2007, the bodies of 342 illegal immigrants were discovered along Arizona's stretch of the U.S-Mexico border — nearly one per day, southern Arizona medical examiners' records show.
The yearly totals recorded by the U.S. Border Patrol show that the number of border deaths each year since the program started in 2004 has been higher than in any of the previous years.
Taking just the number of bodies handled by the Pima County medical examiner, and comparing 2001-2003, before the repatriation program started, the number of bodies found hasn't decreased.
"The repatriation efforts have not stopped deaths. There's not even a decrease in deaths," said Jennifer Allen, director of Border Action Network, an immigrants rights organization based in Tucson. "This continues to be this deadly, exorbitantly costly shell game."
Kelly Nantel, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has run the program since 2005, said the death toll could be higher without the program and that U.S. officials were satisfied with the results.
"We could be not taking into account that it reaches temperatures of 120 degrees (49 Celsius) or higher" in the border desert, Nantel said. "But we do because we recognize that there are human beings involved in this process, and it's critical we take care of them."
Through the first two weeks of the program this year, 3,615 illegal immigrants have taken the flights home, she said.
"That's 3,600 individuals who we know are not subject to extreme heat in the desert, to traffickers and smugglers who don't have their safety in mind," she said.
An average of 176 illegal immigrants per day have taken the flights home in the past four years, accounting for only 20 percent of the Mexican illegal border-crossers apprehended daily in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector in July-September over the past four years, agency figures show.
Those numbers don't take into account that many apprehended Mexicans live close to the border, meaning that a flight to Mexico City wouldn't help them, Nantel said. Officials would like to see more take the flights, but Nantel said that 20 percent for a voluntary program is actually pretty good.
U.S. officials consider it money well spent because it keeps those who take the flights safe.
"It saves the taxpayers money and addresses a very critical life-safety issue for individuals who are out in the desert in these very dangerous months," Nantel said.