But what happens once they reach the finish line?
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A Willing Destination
The first step is making sure that the country to which undocumented immigrants are being deported will take them back. Immigration officials must secure a travel document from such a country — essentially a guarantee that it will accept its citizen once that person has been removed from the United States. In most cases, that is not a problem.
Consular officials from Mexico, where a majority of deportees come from, are quick to respond, immigration officials said. A small percentage of people with deportation orders — a few thousand a year — are not accepted back by their home countries, and under a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, they must be released from detention.
The Departure Point
Just as there are several possible outcomes for an immigration case, there are also different ways to deport unauthorized immigrants. A lot of it depends on location.
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Mexican nationals typically are flown to cities such as Phoenix, San Diego, and Brownsville, Tex. From there, they are driven across the border in vans or buses or, in some cases, they simply walk across a bridge. Vans can often be seen leaving ICE’s building in central Phoenix, disappearing in the hubbub of a big city’s traffic as they shuttle deportees on their way back to Mexico.
Citizens of other countries generally are taken to cities that are home to one of the 24 field offices run by the immigration agency’s enforcement and removal operations. These cities include Seattle, Las Vegas and Boise, Idaho, in the West; Omaha, St. Paul and Kansas City, Mo., in the heartland; and Miami and Harrisburg, Pa., in the East. From there, deportees are flown to their final destinations.
ICE has its own air transportation arm and uses a combination of commercial and charter flights to move detainees among American cities and from the United States to foreign countries. There are regularly scheduled charter flights to countries that have a large and steady number of deportees, such as El Salvador and Honduras. The agency also shuttles deportees on charter flights to Europe, Asia and Africa, though less frequently. Recently, one such flight carried deportees to Somalia, an ICE spokeswoman said.
Deportees are shackled by their wrists and ankles on charter flights and on commercial flights if they are being escorted. Not all of them are escorted; the decision is based on whether they have a history of violent crimes or are deemed dangerous to others. During the flight, wrist shackles come off only while the deportees eat or use the restroom.
The Cost of Repatriation
The cost of these trips is borne entirely by American taxpayers. ICE pays on average $8,419 per flight hour for charter flights, regardless of how many people they carry.
Having too many empty seats on these flights, and too often, were among the points of criticism of in audit performed by the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General in 2015. Another was the circuitous routes taken by at least some of the detainees. In 2013, one flew from Seattle to El Paso to Phoenix, back to Seattle and back to Phoenix before landing in Guatemala.
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Immigrants generally arrive at their destinations carrying nothing beyond the clothes they are wearing. They have no laces on their shoes and no belts on their pants, because of fears those can be used in suicide attempts.
The responsibility of the United States government is not to get them to their final destinations. From a drop-off point — an airport, a bridge over the Rio Grande in Texas or an assigned gate in other land border crossings — deportees must figure out how to reunite with relatives there or connect with the families they may have left behind.
One early morning last year, I watched at least a dozen men emerge from a small Mexican government office in Nogales, just south of the border, where the men had checked in upon arrival. They were visibly confused.
One man approached a taxi driver and asked, “How much to drive me to San Luis Potosí?” — a state in the heart of the country. He had no money. The taxi driver directed him to a boulevard nearby and told him to follow it to a soup kitchen run by the Kino Border Initiative, a nonprofit group that feeds and clothes deportees newly arrived in a country they had chosen to leave.
Five years earlier, Maria Rodriguez, 40, walked past that same office. She had no money and no idea where to go when she was dropped off in Nogales after her deportation. (Ms. Rodriguez later re-entered the United States after petitioning for asylum, invoking the dangers of drug cartel violence in her home state, Guerrero, Mexico. But she currently does not have legal status.)
“I asked a person I didn’t even know to lend me her phone so I could call my husband,” Ms. Rodriguez recalled in an interview this week. Her husband, then a legal permanent United States resident and now a citizen, crossed the border to bring her some clothing and cash before returning home to their four children in Phoenix.
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