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U.S. Quietly Resumes Deportation Flights Deep Into Mexico

CIUDAD JUAREZ , MEXICO - DECEMBER 20: Migrants including women and children try to cross to the US in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on December 20, 2023. (Photo by Christian Torres/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The United States has quietly resumed deporting some Mexicans on flights that carry them far from the southern border, U.S. and Mexican officials said, a move designed in part to discourage them from repeatedly trying to cross into the United States.

The first flight to Morelia, a city in central Mexico hundreds of miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing, took off Tuesday carrying more than 100 Mexicans, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details.

A senior Mexican official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the flights were expected to continue on a regular basis.

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Tuesday’s flight was the first of its kind in nearly two years. U.S. authorities more commonly deport Mexicans over land, near the border. But the number of Mexicans crossing into the United States has spiked in recent months, prompting U.S. authorities to find more forceful ways to discourage people from making the trip north.

The Biden administration is struggling to contain one of the largest surges of uncontrolled immigration in American history, with people fleeing poverty, political instability and violence in Central America, South America and elsewhere. Last week, President Joe Biden tried to address a growing political liability by imploring Congress to grant him the power to shut down the border.

The United States paused deportation flights for Mexicans in 2022, when officials turned their attention to the skyrocketing number of migrants arriving from countries including Haiti and Venezuela.

But as a wave of deadly violence grips Mexico before next year’s presidential election in the country, more residents are fleeing. More than 56,000 Mexicans were apprehended by border agents in December, the highest number of Mexicans crossing the border since last spring.

“Mexicans are starting to identify security as a major issue for the presidential campaign,” said Andrew Rudman, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “So I suspect that a lot of that is people feeling they are not safe where they are.”

The flights are not only about deterrence. Mexican officials have requested the flights in the past so that migrants will be returned closer to their homes and so that they can avoid crowded border cities. The flights also connect the deportees to reintegration services, like job opportunities and shelter.

But migration experts and former immigration officials say the flights are also aimed at making it harder for people to make a repeat crossing.

“The value to the U.S. is that it dramatically reduces the likelihood that someone is going to return unlawfully,” said John Sandweg, who was a homeland security official in the Obama administration.

The flight this week took place a month after senior U.S. officials — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — flew to Mexico City to figure out a strategy to slow the surge in illegal crossings.

In December, more than 11,000 migrants were crossing the border on some days, a record.

The Obama administration obtained an agreement with Mexico to deport Mexicans into the interior of the country in 2012. The program, known as the Interior Repatriation Initiative, came at a time when Mexicans were the majority of migrants crossing the border and the number of crossings was significantly lower than that seen today.

More than 46,000 Mexicans were flown into the heart of the country from late 2019 through May 2022, according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization.

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