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Road to Nowhere

The U.S. Border Patrol says its illegal immigration repatriation program is working to break the crossing cycle in Arizona, but officials in Texas and Mexico worry the program creates more problems than it solves.

Photo of undocumented immigrants getting off the bus in Presidio so they can be deported to Ojinaga, Mexico

PRESIDIO/OJINAGA – One by one, 40 Mexican immigrants file off the gray Wackenhut bus, each with the tongue of their torn, dirty shoes flopping agape, beltless pants sagging. Most with their heads hung low. All looking lost and weary.

Security guards in gray uniforms hand each man a clear bag with his belongings and a snack — a packet of tuna, crackers, a juice box — for the long road that is about to unfurl in front of them.

The U.S. Border Patrol bused the men nearly 600 miles from Tucson to this tiny, isolated and impoverished Texas border community. Each day, two Wackenhut buses arrive loaded with 47 men, ages 20 to 60. The men, nonviolent immigration offenders, are shown their way out of the U.S. and back across the border to Ojinaga.

Border Patrol officials, who launched the Alien Transfer and Exit Program on Nov. 1, say the program is meant to break the smuggling cycle in the Arizona-Sonora region. In the metropolitan area of Tucson, human smugglers abound and illegal Mexican immigrants can easily blend into the population, said Victor Velazquez, assistant sector chief in Marfa. Those conditions don’t exist in the isolated Presidio-Ojinaga area, where the dangerous terrain and brutal weather make cross-border travel treacherous. And, he said, the immigrants are not staying in the area; they’re going back to their homes. “We haven’t seen any adverse impact on our operations here locally,” Velazquez said.

But the program has caused a stir not just in these small tight-knit border communities, but even in Austin. Local officials, both Mexican and Texan, worry that destitute immigrants will stay in the poverty stricken communities where the buses stop, draining already lacking resources and potentially creating a new human smuggling industry in the quiet, mountainous region. “We’re in financial straits anyway, and Mexico’s in worse shape,” said Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan. Gov. Rick Perry has blasted the program as a punitive shot at Texas and has called for its end. And even if those potential problems don't become reality, the program isn't breaking the human smuggling cycle, they said, because determined migrants are taking advantage of a Mexican subsidy that allows them to travel right back to the place where their journey north began.

For most of the immigrants who wind up on the bus, it's a 1,200-mile round trip subsidized by the Mexican and American governments with no evidence to show its effectiveness in the fight against illegal immigration.

Scenic tour

Border Patrol agents in dark green uniforms and mirrored sunglasses stoically stand watch as the men walk by, holding up their beltless pants and lugging their bags of belongings. The agents ensure that each one completes the short walk across the bridge and back to the country they tried to escape.

None has tried to make a dash back to the U.S. yet, said Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks. Since the program began, the agency has deported about 3,000 men.

Once on the other side of the bridge, safe in their home country, the men dig belts, shoelaces and jackets out of their bags and enter the Mexican immigration office at the foot of the international crossing. An official from the Mexican Consulate is there to greet the men, to let them know where they are — hundreds of miles from their homes — and what their options are. “We’ll help you to get to your place of origin,” the official tells about a half-dozen men gathered around him.

The Mexican government gives each man a voucher to cover the price of bus transportation to his home — or wherever he chooses to go in Mexico. Each also gets a bag of nonperishable food items for the journey, which for most is at least three hours to Chihuahua City. For those who travel on to Mexico City, the trip is more than 20 hours.

Francisco Paredes, looking tired and unshaven, grabbed his bus voucher and headed outside to wait for his ride. For Paredes, the road home will take about a day and end in Sonora just across the border from where immigration officials nabbed him in Arizona.

Paredes was in Tucson for six days before Border Patrol agents caught him. He was looking for construction work to help support his family in Sonora.  He is 34 and has a wife, a six-year-old daughter, a one-year-old boy and a baby on the way. “They’re concerned about me not being at home,” Paredes said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Paredes had been in the U.S. twice before for work, and despite the hassle of being caught and bused hundreds of miles from his home, he said he planned to sneak north again, probably after the New Year. “It’s worth it for economic stability for the family,” he said.

Sergio Contreras, who stood in line waiting for his bus voucher, was also headed back to Sonora. The 25-year-old father paid a smuggler there $7,000 to get him into the U.S., so he could find construction work to support his family — he and his wife have one child and another on the way. But he made it just a few kilometers into Arizona before he became exhausted from the long desert walk. He stopped, and Border Patrol agents grabbed him.

Work is scarce back in Agua Prieta, the Sonoran border town where Contreras lives. But he said he would go back there and try to find work. He doesn’t plan to try to cross into the U.S. again. “One gets very tired (on the journey north), and they grab you very quickly,” he said.

The price of repatriation

Most, if not all, of the immigrants Border Patrol brings to Presidio take advantage of travel vouchers the Mexican government provides and leave the area, said Mexican Consul Hector Raul Acosta Flores. Local officials' worries that immigrants would stay in the region and burden local resources aren’t coming to fruition — yet. But that doesn’t mean the Mexican government is happy about the program. Acosta said U.S. officials simply told Mexican officials the deportation process would begin. They weren’t consulted about how it should work and had to quickly implement procedures to deal with hundreds of immigrants each week being transplanted to Ojinaga, a poor border town of about 18,000. “What is the need to bring them all the way to this place? It’s just to give them a trouble,” Acosta said.

For now, the Mexican government is paying up to $200 per immigrant to transport the deportees out of Ojinaga, Acosta said. Most are going back to the Sonora area near Arizona, where they came from, where they have connections with smugglers, where it’s easier to try crossing the border again. Acosta said he warns the immigrants that getting caught again could land them in an American prison.

It’s unclear, though, how long the struggling Mexican government can maintain the expense of busing hundreds of immigrants each month.  And Acosta, Ojinaga Mayor Cesar Carrasco and Presidio County Judge Agan worry what the end of the subsidies could mean for the region.

With all the new traffic in the community, Acosta said he is concerned a new industry will sprout to help immigrants stranded in Ojinaga find their way back north. Already the area is a hub for drug trafficking. It could easily become a hot spot for human smuggling, he said. “You’re going to see it if they continue with this,” Acosta said. “The smugglers are not going to lose, I’m sure.”

Sitting in his small office inside the tattered Ojinaga city administration building, where broken tiles mark the floors and a naked fake Christmas tree decorates the mayor’s foyer, Carrasco said his town can’t support another 470 people per week. “We live day-to-day,” he said. “It’s a tight economy.”

Outside Carrasco’s office, just about every other business front is abandoned. Street vendors petition drivers for change in exchange for handmade goods. Dilapidated and vacant homes dot narrow streets. There is no major industry for work, none of the maquiladoras that fuel economies in many Mexican border towns. There are not enough services here to care for Ojinaga’s existing residents. Increasing the population by 10 percent per month if the deportees were to stay, Acosta said, would be untenable. “Society is not organized to lend assistance to all these people,” he said in Spanish, through an interpreter.

Presidio — population 4,000 — is not in much better shape. The unemployment rate is about 18 percent, Agan said. Stray dogs roam dusty streets lined with mobile homes and cinder-block structures. “There is no jobs in Presidio to be had,” he said.  Alpine, with about 6,000 people, is the closest population center. It’s a three-day walk there through mountainous desert where temperatures can fluctuate from freezing to scorching. “The ramifications that could happen out there are startling and very worrisome to me,” Agan said.

Breaking the cycle

Despite pleas from state and local officials on both sides of the border to end the program, assistant chief Velazquez said Border Patrol has no plans to stop the buses.

Velazquez said Mexican and Texan officials were informed beforehand about the program. More than a year ago, he said, Border Patrol began discussions about expanding their deportation program. Border Patrol has been busing immigrants from Tucson to San Diego for years. “It’s not a change; it’s an addition,” Velazquez said. Local officials, he said, were given at least two months notice when the agency decided to forge ahead in Presidio.

When undocumented immigrants are caught in Arizona, he said, they are given the choice to present their case to an immigration judge, or they can sign a “voluntary” removal document that expedites their repatriation.

If the deported immigrants stay in the Sonora area, he said, it’s easier for them to reconnect with smugglers. And when they cross back into the U.S., it’s easier for them to blend into the large city of Tucson. In the tiny communities of Presidio and Ojinaga, there is no smuggling infrastructure, and the towns are so small and isolated that strangers are quickly noticed. Last year, the Marfa sector had fewer illegal immigrant apprehensions than any other border sector, said spokesman Bill Brooks.

If smuggling organizations set up shop in the region, Velazquez said the Border Patrol is prepared to deal with it. In the last three years, the number of agents in the sector has tripled, and now 71 officers are on patrol. “If the criminal element moves into this area, it’s easily identifiable,” Velazquez said.

Border Patrol officials won’t provide statistics that show how many of the immigrants they bus to Mexico try to cross back to the U.S. Asked whether the deported immigrants are simply getting a free bus ride back to Sonora to try to cross again, Velazquez said agency numbers indicate the program is breaking the smuggling cycle in the Sonora-Arizona region. And, he said, there have been no adverse affects in the local communities. “It’s breaking the smuggling cycle,” he said.

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