Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Last in a three-part series.
MATAMOROS, Mexico — Wearing a new backpack stuffed with clothes his wife packed for him, Alberto Perez-Garcia ran south across the bridge spanning the Rio Grande like a first-grader chasing the school bus.
His haste wasn't because the 26-year-old Idaho ranch hand felt overjoyed to return to the land of his birth for the first time in two decades. He ran to keep up with some new friends he made on the deportation flight from Salt Lake City earlier in the day. He's not sure he trusts them, but figures if they stick together they have a better chance against border bullies he fears are waiting to prey on new arrivals.
He doesn't want to get lost on the first day in his new old country.
"I don't know Mexico. I've never been to Mexico, so for me the first thing is to be safe," he said. "My biggest fear is getting killed, getting kidnapped."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flies thousands of illegal immigrants to southeastern Texas from all over the country dozens of times a week, including four or five flights from the West. A white, unmarked MD80 stops in Salt Lake City each Thursday en route to Harlingen, Texas, where buses shuttle deportees to ports of entry in Brownsville and Hidalgo. They walk across the border to Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, respectively.
Most leave under court orders, while some go voluntarily. More than half are considered "criminal aliens" because they committed crimes while in the United States. The others either crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas. The ICE Flight Operations Unit this year had flown 63,176 Mexicans to the border. It had taken another 56,795 to countries other than Mexico. Those numbers have increased each year since 1995 and are on target to do the same in 2010. The average flight runs about $630 per passenger.
Until a few months ago, ICE flew Mexicans to El Paso, where deportees crossed the border to Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world. But the agency shifted the final destination at the request of the Mexican government due to the violence there, said Jim Donaldson, ICE flight operations supervisory agent.
No border town is safe right now. In the past couple of weeks in Matamoros' state of Tamaulipas, cars exploded outside a police station and a television station. A gang is suspected of massacring 72 migrants, and a prosecutor investigating those deaths disappeared. In Matamoros, rival drug cartels are fighting for control of smuggling routes into the U.S.
A flight late last month through Salt Lake City originated in Mesa, Ariz., and made stops in Twin Falls, Las Vegas and El Paso before touching down in Harlingen.
Perez and 50 others arrive shackled and handcuffed from the Weber and Utah county jails at the ICE office early in the morning — 34 destined for Mexico, including 21 with criminal records ranging from traffic violations to aggravated assault; 11 transfers to a Miami detention center representing Nigeria, Iraq, Panama, Iran, Russia, Jamaica, Afghanistan and Mexico, and three each from Guatemala and Honduras for later flights from Texas to their countries.
The oldest is 52; the youngest 19. They are kept in a holding cell while agents bring out several at a time to be fingerprinted and patted down. Officers also search the backpacks and suitcases family members have dropped off that morning along with plastic bags full of personal possessions from the jail.
Though chaotic, officers say the process is usually without incident. But on this morning one man argues with agents over the weight of his belongings. His garbage bag jammed with papers and law books exceeded the 40-pound limit, and he steadfastly refused to throw anything out. After what they deemed a threatening move, agents took him to the ground and carried him prone to another room to cool off on his stomach.
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