Someone must have told them it was cold in the desert at night, as they are all wearing sweatshirts. They disembark the charter flight and shuffle into a hangar behind Mexico City's International Airport. Looking down, most miss the sign strung up cheerfully across the wall that reads, "Bienvenidos" - welcome.
They have not been gone long, really. A week, maybe 10 days. They left their homes in Puebla or Oaxaca, Veracruz or Chiapas, put a bar of soap and an extra pair of jeans in a knapsack, hugged their families farewell, and headed north across the US-Mexico border into Arizona.
Now, they are back, their journey cut short by the US Border Patrol, and their return home speeded by a US taxpayer-funded program that flies illegal immigrants caught at the border back home. "Their smugglers are saying, 'Try crossing again and again,'" says US Border Patrol spokesman Salvador Zamora, "and we are saying, 'Let us get you out of here.... The desert is filled with death."
Last year, 330 migrants died crossing the 261-mile Arizona border, 124 of them in the Sonoran Desert, according to the Mexican consulate in Tucson, Ariz. They lost their lives to snakes and scorpions, to bandits and - in the summer months, when temperatures soar into the triple digits - to heatstroke and dehydration. Arizona regularly sees more migrants trying to cross its frontier - and more deaths - than any other border state.
In the past, immigrants who were caught trying to enter Arizona (700,000 last year, according to US Border Patrol statistics) were bused back and released. From there, many simply started the journey all over again.
To try to lower the number of deaths during the summer months and discourage quick turnarounds, the US and Mexican governments last year instituted a voluntary repatriation program, where migrants are offered a flight back to the interior of Mexico and spared any immigration proceedings. Those who choose to participate are put on charters in Tucson, flown 2-1/2 hours to Mexico City, and given bus tickets to their home towns and villages. There are two flights a day.
Last summer 14,071 people took the flights, at a cost of $1,100 per passenger, or $15.5 million overall, paid for by the US government. The program started up again last month and is expected to continue until Sept. 30 at a cost of $14.2 million. The Mexican government is further contributing $143,920 toward travel expenses within Mexico.
Officials on both sides of the border say the program is a small but sure success. According to US Border Patrol statistics, only 18 percent of the program's participants last year were arrested attempting to re-enter the US - almost half the sector's recidivism rate of 32 percent. Meanwhile, during the summer of 2004, there was one death for every 3,488 people detained, according to the Mexican Foreign Ministry; in that same period in 2003, there was one death for every 2,498 detentions.
European nations, including Britain, France, and Germany, have announced plans for a similar program to fly illegal immigrants back to their home countries.
Currently, an average of only 94 Mexicans are volunteering to return on each flight, says Mr. Zamora, well below the 150 that the Border Patrol expected. A US-Mexican working group of government officials and immigration experts will meet next week to discuss ways of increasing participation.
Critics of the program are not lacking. "The repatriation program is a waste of money," says the Rev. Robin Hood, president of Human Borders, a volunteer organization based in Tucson that operates water stations in the desert to help migrants. "We have stories of migrants who chose to participate in this program only because they have never been on an airplane before, and show up here again 10 days later." If the goal is to save lives, says Mr. Hood, the money could be spent more wisely - for example, by putting up phone towers so migrants could call for help.
"None of us on my side of the argument thinks this is a panacea," says Jim Gilchrist, founder of the "Minuteman Project," an American organization opposed to illegal immigration that brought some 1,000 civilian volunteers to patrol the Arizona border in April. "We need to spend six to nine billion dollars more to get the job done," he says, suggesting that along with such charter flights, the US government send national troops to the border, build a 30-ft. trench along the frontier, and stiffen prison sentences of those caught more than once. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the Minuteman Project.]
President Bush's proposed 2006 budget provides money to hire 210 new border officers, though in May he signed an emergency spending bill for 500 additional agents. The budget also calls for more high-tech gear for the Border Patrol, including $125 million for radiation detectors and $51 million to improve sensors and video equipment.
Far from this debate, the migrants get off the charter flights in Mexico City and board buses. Each is given a styrofoam box containing a ham and cheese sandwich, orange juice, an apple, and a piece of marzipan for dessert. They eat in silence, usually putting away half the drink or the fruit in their knapsacks for later.
Jesus Martinez, who drives the migrants from the hangar to the nearest bus station, puts on music to try to cheer his passengers up, he says, but they remain subdued. "They always look like they are sleeping with their eyes open," he says.
"I thought I should stay at the border," says Alejandro Lopez Gomez, whose family pitched in to pay his $1,200 coyote expenses. "But I had nothing. Not even one peso left." He might try to cross again, he says, in December, when it's cooler.
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.
• 1,600,000 The number of illegal immigrants arrested last year trying to cross the 1,950-mile US-Mexico border (about 42 percent of those were in Arizona).
• 3,000,000 The estimated total number of illegal immigrants who try to cross the US-Mexico border every year.
• 65,814 The number of so-called OTMs (other than Mexicans) caught along the border in 2004.
• 11,000 Total number of permanent border agents patrolling US land and sea borders (9,900 are on the US-Mexico border, 2,500 of whom are in Arizona alone.)
• 3,769 The number of illegal immigrants who have taken the repatriation flights so far this year.
Source: US Border Patrol, staff research