MEXICO CITY – Rest up. See the family. Then head north and try to slip back across the U.S. border.
Those were among the plans voiced by the first group of 138 undocumented Mexican migrants flown at U.S. expense to their country's capital as part of a voluntary pilot program that began Monday. Usually, they are driven by American authorities back only to the border.
The costly initiative is designed to discourage repeat border crossings, but if the first plane load is any indication, many of those flown deep into Mexican territory will try to make it to American soil again.
"They caught me trying to cross three times, so I thought 'I should go home and wait for a time when security is not so strict,'" said Marcos Paldrino, a 24-year-old from Toluca (search) in Mexico state, which borders Mexico City. "I'll try again in two months."
Paldrino said he worked in construction in Las Vegas last year and that the pay was worth a potentially deadly trip across the border.
"In Mexico there is nothing for me," said Paldrino, who wore a Houston Astros baseball cap and was traveling with a backpack slug over one shoulder. "What choice do I have?"
The program began Monday and will feature two flights a day, taking up to 150 undocumented migrants to Mexico City and the western city of Guadalajara (search). From there, they will be given bus tickets to their home communities.
"This is a 100-percent voluntary program, so the Mexican government is just carrying out what the migrants have requested," said Bosco Marti, the Foreign Relations Department's point man on North American affairs.
Designed to run through Sept. 30, the initiative aims to save the lives of migrants who might otherwise try to cross the Arizona desert during scorching summer months.
"This is a well-coordinated, crucial step that is necessary for both humanitarian and law enforcement reasons," said Asa Hutchinson, the U.S. undersecretary for border and transportation security.
"The deaths of so many in the desert are a tragedy that must end," Hutchinson said in a statement.
Andy Adame, a spokesman with the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said about 30 of Monday's passengers were considered at high-risk of dying in the desert if they attempted a second crossing. They included single women with children and the elderly.
Some of those arriving late Monday night claimed they had been tricked into signing a form consenting to be flown to Mexico City. But most other viewed it as a free trip home.
Juan Cortez said he was heading home after being caught by U.S. border authorities four times. He said he would try again as soon as possible, however.
"I'm tired, I want to go home," the Mexico City native said. "Everyone's got to take a rest."
The program is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers $12 million to $13 million, Adame said.
It follows a more controversial one in which border officials involuntarily returned 5,600 migrants caught in Arizona to Mexico through border ports in Texas.
The so-called lateral repatriation program, which lasted about three weeks in September, was designed to move the immigrants far from their smugglers and reduce their chances of re-crossing the border. Immigrants rights groups said the program was expensive, ineffective and simply delayed migrants; some officials in border cities complained they were left unprepared.
Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders (search), a group that puts water in the desert for illegal crossers, said he has concerns about the new program.
"Overall, I would say this is a ridiculous way to approach this problem," he said. "It uses a phenomenal amount of resources and achieves little results."