TUCSON, Ariz. — The U.S. government has halted flights home for Mexicans caught entering the country illegally in the deadly summer heat of Arizona’s deserts, a money-saving move that ends a seven-year experiment that cost taxpayers nearly $100 million.
More than 125,000 passengers were flown deep into Mexico for free since 2004 in an effort initially met with skepticism from Mexican government officials and migrants but was gradually embraced as a way to help people back on their feet and save lives.
The Border Patrol hailed it as a way to discourage people from trying their luck again, and it appears to have kept many away — at least for a short time.
But with Border Patrol arrests at 40-year lows and fresh evidence suggesting more people may be heading south of the border than north, officials struggled to fill the planes and found the costs increasingly difficult to justify. Flights carrying up to 146 people were cut to once from twice daily last year.
And this summer, there haven’t been any.
“Everything comes down to dollars and cents,” said George Allen, assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector. “We’re running into a more budget-conscious society, especially with the government.”
He added: “Does it fit within our budget and is there an alternative that is not as effective but still effective?”
In an effort to keep the flights going, American authorities proposed mixing in Mexicans who commit crimes while living in the U.S. The Mexican government balked at seating hardened criminals next to families, elderly and the frail who recently crossed the border in search of work.
“Right off the bat, I can tell you that Mexico was not going to allow, nor will it ever allow, that kind of repatriation, which puts families’ safety at risk,” said Juan Manuel Calderon, the Mexican consul in Tucson.
The flights may resume but not this year, U.S. and Mexican officials say.
They have operated only in the summer and only in Arizona, designed as a humanitarian effort in response to the many migrants who have died over the last decade trekking through remote deserts in debilitating heat.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano and Mexico Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said in February that they planned to launch a pilot program April 1 to fly migrants arrested while living in the United States deep into Mexico. The pilot program was partly a response to complaints from Mexican border cities that too many deportees were being dumped on their streets and contributing to crime and unemployment.
“We wanted to maximize the flight and we couldn’t come to an agreement,” said Mr. Allen. “They were close. It may happen next year, but by the time it drug on, we got through July and for a short period of time, it wouldn’t have been realistic.”
The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program flights carried 125,164 passengers at a cost of $90.6 million since 2004, or an average of $724 each, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The flights ran as few as 38 days in 2009 and as many as 120 days in 2010, when a record 23,384 passengers were flown. Last year, there were 8,893 passengers flown at a cost of $5 million — an average of $562 each.
The flights became a key piece of Border Patrol enforcement in Arizona as the agency moved to end its decades-old, revolving-door policy of taking migrants to the nearest border crossing to try again hours later.