A U.S. pilot program designed to deport illegal immigrants by flying them to Mexico City will operate for only two months this year and involve 20 flights, a significant scaling-back of what was billed as a humanitarian effort to avoid deporting people to violent border regions.
The first flight, which carried 131 immigrants, landed Tuesday in Mexico City, six months after the originally scheduled start date of the program. Slated to run from April through November, the Interior Repatriation Initiative will operate only this month and next.
Both governments said they would study results of the program before deciding whether to renew it next year.
When the program was announced in February, Mexico's interior secretary, Alejandro Poire, said the flights would improve border security and make it easier for illegal immigrants to return to their hometowns by taking buses from the capital.
Deportees also would no longer be "systematically placed at the mercy of criminal groups in border areas," Poire said in a statement. The flights serve U.S. interests by making it harder for deportees to cross back into the U.S.
Under terms of the agreement, the U.S. pays for the flights, which depart from El Paso, and the Mexican government provides bus fares for the migrants' trips home.
U.S. and Mexican officials did not give specific reasons for the initiative's delay and limited duration.
"Given the complexities and logistics involved with this initiative, the length of time needed to launch the inaugural flight was not unreasonable," the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
The Mexican Interior Ministry confirmed the arrival Tuesday of the first flight at Mexico City's international airport, and said the program would continue through Nov. 29, transporting more than 2,400 people.
"Once in national territory, they will be given food and ground transportation to their communities of origin and-or residence in Mexico," the ministry and the National Migration Institute said in a statement. It said the arriving Mexicans would be given a list of social services available to them and allowed to request medical attention, as well as a phone call to their families.
If there are outstanding criminal charges in Mexico against any of the passengers, they will be investigated for possible prosecution, the ministry said.
Repatriating illegal immigrants has become problematic in recent years as deportations reach record highs and besieged border areas struggle to provide security and housing for people who often arrive penniless and without any contacts.
In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where deportations have surged fivefold in recent years, criminals prey on deportees, sometimes abducting them from streets, bus stations and migrant shelters. Many are held for ransom, and others are recruited into criminal networks that have seized control of much of the region.
The program was viewed by immigrant advocates and experts as a binational way of relieving stress on border cities from Tijuana to Matamoros that struggle to absorb as many as 400,000 deportees annually.
"This type of collaborative effort to protect migrants and limit recruitment for organized crime is an important tool," said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "This is an effective way to deal with this humanitarian crisis, in which migrants are dumped in parts of northern Mexico that are not all safe."
The abbreviated pilot program marks the second time this year that a repatriation flight effort has been scaled back. Another one, which flew illegal immigrants from Arizona to Mexico, was suspended this year for budgetary reasons and a lack of passengers. That program was available on a voluntary basis to people who crossed into Arizona during the summer months.
The Interior Repatriation Initiative is not a voluntary program.