Immigration authorities are flying illegal immigrants deep into their native Mexico from Southern Arizona to discourage dangerous crossings in triple-digit desert heat.
The twice-daily flights from Tucson to Mexico City are intended to keep immigrants away from border towns where they would likely run into smugglers who want to sneak them back into the U.S.
“This is where the probability of losing their lives can really increase. We offer that opportunity for them to get out of that cycle,” John Torres, a special adviser to the assistant secretary of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Monday in Tucson.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security flights began Aug. 22 for the sixth straight summer and will end Sept. 28.
Tucson is the only spot in this country where the flights depart. Arizona is the busiest illegal entry point into the U.S.
Since 2004, more than 82,000 Mexicans have been returned as part of the repatriation program. The number, however, represents just a small portion of illegal immigrants in this country.
Hundreds of people die crossing the border each year from heat exposure, vehicle and train accidents, fatigue, banditry and other causes.
Smugglers, who can earn an average of $1,500 for each customer, use remote and dangerous migration routes where enforcement is weaker, a tactic that contributes to the deaths.
The repatriation program is for Mexicans who cross the border illegally, volunteer to take the flights home and don’t have criminal records.
Participants include people who are vulnerable to the heat because of their age or physical condition. The flights carry an average of 150 people each and aren’t available to people from other countries.
In Mexico City, participants are bused to their hometowns, typically in central and southern Mexico.
The Mexican government picks up some costs of the program, while the U.S. pays $6 million under a contract with carrier Miami Air.