HARLINGEN, Texas – Illegal immigrants (search) from Mexico caught in the Arizona desert will be offered free flights home under a proposal approved Wednesday by the Homeland Security Department (search).
The plan replaces a program started last year in which immigrants were flown to Texas border cities so they would be deported far from Arizona. That program moved 6,000 Mexicans, but Texas mayors balked, saying the government was shifting Arizona's problem their way.
The new program could begin as soon as this week and will run through September.
It will offer immigrants airline tickets to Mexico City or Guadalajara, then bus tickets to their homes. If they refuse, they will be deported through the nearest Arizona border crossing, not through Texas.
Homeland Security spokesman Bill Strassberger said the free-flight program was designed to save lives by helping to break the cycle of immigrants who try to return to the United States shortly after being deported.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 154 immigrants died in the Arizona desert.
Sending illegal immigrants to cities deeper inside Mexico had been discussed for years, but the Mexican government was reluctant to participate. Mayors of cities on the Mexican side of the Texas border complained that migrants were dumped in their communities without money for food or transportation.
A similar program failed in the 1990s because most immigrants declined to take the flights and chose instead to be deported near the border.
Laredo Mayor Betty Flores said the government's decision was a relief.
"I think it's the safest for the folks that get caught in these terrible circumstances, and it's the best thing that can happen to the U.S. border cities who were being burdened with the additional folks," she said.