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Off the Bus

The U.S. Border Patrol has stopped a controversial program that shipped illegal immigrants back to Mexico through the tiny Texas border town of Presidio — for now.

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

The U.S. Border Patrol has stopped a controversial program that shipped busloads of illegal immigrants back to Mexico through the tiny, remote Texas border town of Presidio — for now.

The Border Patrol launched the Alien Transfer and Exit Program on Nov. 1, loading two buses each day with up to 47 male illegal immigrants ages 20 to 60 and transporting them from Arizona to Presidio, where they were deported to Ojinaga, Mexico. Bill Brooks, a spokesman for the Marfa Sector Border Patrol, says the program was suspended Dec. 31 — just two months after it started — because illegal cross-border traffic had dropped off. “We hit a kind of seasonal lull,” Brooks says. But the stop, he says, is only temporary, and the agency plans to get the buses running again when illegal traffic resumes. “Generally, apprehensions drop this time of year, primarily because of the weather,” he says.

State and local officials in Texas have been none too happy with the Border Patrol’s program. Gov. Rick Perry objected mightily to the federal government’s plan to use Texas as what he called a “way station” for illegal immigration. “This plan will increase the likelihood that these individuals will immediately cross back into Texas, which is already bearing an uneven burden in dealing with immigration and border security issues,” Perry said shortly before the buses started running. Local officials in Presidio County and in Ojinaga were concerned the flood of illegal immigrants would drive up crime and joblessness in the already impoverished border region. Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan worried for the lives of immigrants who might try to cross back into the U.S. through the treacherous mountainous desert terrain. “The ramifications that could happen out there are startling and very worrisome to me,” Agan said in December.

The goal of the transfer program, according to Border Patrol officials, was to break the smuggling cycle in the Arizona-Sonora area. In the metropolitan area of Tucson, human smugglers abound, and illegal Mexican immigrants can easily blend into the population. Those conditions don’t exist in the rural, isolated area of Presidio, some 600 miles away. During the suspension, Brooks says, the Border Patrol reviewed the program to assess whether it worked during the two months of operation. Though he couldn’t provide any specific numbers, Brooks says that none of the immigrants tried to sneak back across to the U.S. in Presidio. A few, he says, did come back in the Arizona area.

When a reporter for The Texas Tribune traveled to Presidio in December to watch the transfer process and talk to deported immigrants, it was unclear whether the Border Patrol was accomplishing its goal to break the smuggling cycle. Once the immigrants arrived in Mexico, their government provided them a bus ticket to go anywhere in the country. Many planned to go straight back to the Arizona-Sonora area and try again to cross into the U.S. For them, the prospect of work and economic security in the north was worth the risk of getting caught again by Border Patrol and possibly sent to jail.

In the two months that the Border Patrol bused illegal immigrants to Presidio, Agan says, they didn’t see any major incidents or a spike in crime that he and other local leaders worried about. Mexican and U.S. officials said most of the immigrants took advantage of bus tickets and food provisions that the government subsidized and left the area quickly. Still, Agan says he is glad the buses aren’t running, though no one from Border Patrol told him about the suspension. He says he found out from the Mexican consul in Presidio. “Hopefully, if they start again, they’ll have to courtesy to at least tell us about it,” he says.

Mexican Consul Hector Raul Acosta Flores in Presidio said Border Patrol officials informed him the transfer program would be suspended, but he said he was unaware they planned to start it again. When the buses were running, he says, the already struggling Mexican government spent thousands each day on bus fare and food for the returning immigrants. “It definitely was a lot of expenses that we had to afford,” he says.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger says the governor is pleased that Border Patrol has stopped using Presidio as a way station and that he hopes they will end the program permanently. But Border Patrol spokesman Brooks says the buses are likely to start taking immigrants on that 600-mile journey from Arizona to Presidio again as soon as illegal traffic picks up. “We think it was successful,” he says.

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