Reporting from Mexicali, Mexico -- Luis Montes slipped across the Rio Grande and had started crawling through a field when a U.S. Border Patrol agent nabbed him. It was a Saturday and the 32-year-old illegal immigrant figured that by Sunday he would be deported back to Mexico, where he would promptly try again to cross into Texas.
Instead, Montes was put on a plane, flown halfway across the country and bused to the California-Mexico border. At 2 a.m. Tuesday, U.S. border authorities took off his handcuffs and escorted him to a gate leading to the desert city of Mexicali.
Montes was back in Mexico, but about 1,200 miles away from where he started.
“This is a great surprise,” Montes said as he slipped on his shoes at the dimly lit border crossing.
Across the street, young men gathered outside seedy bars and around taco carts, and Montes wondered if Mexicali was as dangerous as other border cities. “Is there a lot of crime here?” he asked.
The once-confident immigrant was reduced to a bewildered traveler, a favorable outcome for U.S. border authorities under a rapidly expanding program that affects about one-fifth of all illegal immigrants arrested along the Southwest border.
Montes’ deportation was handled through the Alien Transfer Exit Program, which tries to disrupt immigration patterns. For years, immigrants were deported across the border from where they were caught, a practice that allowed them to easily reconnect with smugglers who would try to bring them across again, sometimes within hours.
Under the transfer program, many immigrants who are caught in California are flown to Texas border cities, and the flights return west filled with immigrants caught in Texas. In Arizona, immigrant groups are divided, with some deported through Texas and others through California.
Critics view the expansion of the program with trepidation, saying it’s costly, breaks up families and deports immigrants into lawless border cities where they are preyed on by criminal gangs. A group of 51 immigrants detained in New Mexico last summer protested their repatriation to northeast Mexico, where the feared Zetas organized crime group has kidnapped and massacred immigrants.
But U.S. border authorities said the program, which they say “breaks the smuggling cycle,” has proved to be an effective deterrent. Disoriented and discouraged by the additional obstacles of crossing in an unfamiliar area, immigrants are more likely to give up and go home, authorities say.
The number of immigrants repatriated through the program has increased dramatically since its inception in 2008, from 8,931 to 72,154 this federal fiscal year, when it was expanded across the border. Authorities credit the program for contributing to the record decline in apprehensions along the Southwest border.
“It’s another tool in our toolbox that helps deter people from trying again,” said Bill Brooks, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which runs the program with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When immigrants return to Mexico, their first calls are often to smugglers who house and feed them until the next crossing.
When Montes was deported to Mexicali last week, his first call was to his wife in Cuernavaca. He needed her to wire him some pesos for food.
Montes was among a group of 30 immigrants who found themselves in similar straits after reentering Mexico holding their meager belongings in plastic bags. They were all caught a few days earlier upon crossing the border near McAllen, Texas. After being flown to Yuma, Ariz., they were put on buses destined for the Calexico-Mexicali border.
None had ever been in Mexicali, the sprawling capital of Baja California. They laced up their shoes slowly, undecided about what to do next. Montes said he had arranged to pay $2,300 to a smuggling group in Reynosa, Mexico, to take him to Houston, where he would have worked in construction. Others had planned to go as far as Virginia and Ohio.
Their only destination this morning was a convenience store across the street, where they pooled their pesos to buy potato chips and tamales, which they shared under a streetlight.
None strayed from the group, well aware of the dangers that lurk in some border cities. In June, a group of immigrants at a New Mexico detention facility wrote letters asking not to be deported to northeastern states like Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, where organized crime groups rival the power of local governments.
Gangs in those regions monitor the border crossings, waiting to pounce on deportees, according to some immigrants and advocacy groups. One immigrant interviewed in Mexicali said heavily armed gunmen tried to kidnap his friend earlier this year near the border crossing in Matamoros. People from Sinaloa, home to Mexico’s most powerful organized crime group, are often targeted because they are assumed to be rivals of the Zetas, other immigrants said.
These reports, like many others regarding deportees, are unconfirmed. Researchers and human rights groups who have tried to document cases in the cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo have been threatened, forcing them to stop their work.
U.S. officials said they are aware of the violent situation, and said they have stopped deporting immigrants with criminal records into Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso. But repatriations to other hot spots continue. The city of Mexicali, which has been largely spared gang wars, is relatively safe.
“The agency is not in the practice of allowing detainees to request repatriation to specific locations in Mexico,” reads a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement given to No More Deaths, an Arizona-based immigrant rights group.
For border officials, the program’s appeal seems obvious. Many of the immigrants deported to Mexicali on Sept. 20 showed up later that day at a government office where immigrants are given bus tickets to go home. U.S. officials said only about one-quarter of immigrants deported through the program are encountered again trying to cross the border.
Eliseo Jimenez, a skinny 20-year-old, painted a picture of just how grueling it is to overcome a distant deportation. After being caught near San Diego in August, he was flown to Texas and deported through Brownsville, the opposite end of the 2,000-mile border. He hitchhiked and walked back to Baja California, surviving an armed robbery and losing 15 pounds during the monthlong trip, he said.
When he finally reached Tijuana, he tried to cross the border and got caught again, he said. Jimenez and several other immigrants said the biggest challenge was finding smugglers they could trust in unfamiliar cities. Many stole their money, others worked with bandits and some were incompetent or fearful of being arrested.
“The smuggling guides we hired wouldn’t even cross the border. They tried directing us using radios and cellphones,” said Rigoberto Rosales, 30, who failed in three crossing attempts.
He and his friend had planned to pick crops in Salinas; instead they got a bus ticket to Guadalajara. “We’re going home,” Rosales said.
Montes also wasn’t up for another attempt. A few hours after being repatriated, he and a dozen other immigrants boarded buses. He was heading home to Cuernavaca, but wouldn’t concede defeat. “If someone is committed to crossing, this only makes it a little more difficult,” he said.