One-way ticket

June 20, 2005

LAST WEEK, 1,363 Mexican migrants who breached the Arizona border were flown to Mexico City by the U.S. government and given a simple warning: Don't come back.

If only things were that simple.

By transporting the migrants to Mexico's interior, far away from the border and closer to their hometowns, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hopes to dissuade repeat crossings, decrease the number of migrant deaths in the desert and diminish migrant smuggling.

Though well-intentioned, this interior repatriation program conducted jointly with the Mexican government is having mixed results. Migrants transported to Mexico's interior are being reapprehended at the border. Deaths in the Sonora-Arizona corridor, the border area being targeted by the program, increased to 177 last year from 154 in 2003.

Still, officers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency overseeing the program, now in its second year, are encouraged that just 18 percent of the migrants repatriated to the interior have attempted to cross again, compared with 42 percent of those returned to Mexican border towns. However, agency officials don't know how many of those sent to the interior eluded them on a subsequent try and successfully entered.

Participation in the program is voluntary, and just 14,700 of 96,723 migrants apprehended in a three-month period last summer agreed to be repatriated to the interior. Those who did were often penniless after having paid smugglers to take them to the United States, and had no means to return to hometowns hours away from the border. Typically, this would leave them little choice but to try to cross the border again. Under the repatriation program, they are flown to Mexico City free, at a cost of about $1,044 per migrant, and Mexican authorities then give them bus fare to get home.

At $14 million, the price tag is relatively small, but it's no guarantee that the program will be as effective a deterrent as better monitoring of the interior United States, where the prospect of jobs is a strong inducement to border-crossers, and better enforcement of U.S. labor laws that prohibit the hiring of undocumented immigrants.

The repatriation program is an understandable effort to ease the chaos on the border, but it's not likely to make more than a small dent in the hundreds of thousands of annual illegal border crossings. It helps some; it's even humane. But it's not a solution.

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