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Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents board a plane in Tucson for a flight to Mexico City in 2011 under the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program. (Photo courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security would like it to be known that reports of the death of a Mexican immigrant repatriation program have been greatly exaggerated.

Tight budgets have forced a halt this year to the Migration Interior Repatriation Program, which has flown illegal immigrants deep into Mexico since 2004 instead of dropping them on the other side of the border.

But government officials said they are working out the details of a new, "more robust program" that will achieve the same goals as the MIRP.

A Homeland Security statement released late Monday said, "Discussions regarding flights to the interior of Mexico in coordination with the government of Mexico are ongoing and an announcement is expected soon."

Similarly, a Mexican Embassy official in Washington said both countries "remain fully committed to the objective of having all repatriations of Mexican nationals be conducted in a safe, dignified and orderly manner, with safeguards that guarantee the respect of human rights."

The MIRP was a joint effort by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol that offered a flight to Mexico City to certain Mexican nationals without criminal records who were caught illegally in Arizona. Immigrants could reject the offer.

The program began in 2004 and operated only in the summer, when the risk to illegal border crossers is greatest because of desert heat. It ran through last summer, when 8,893 immigrants were flown home.

The objective, as cited by the Department of Homeland Security, was to "save lives and disrupt the human trafficking cycle."

A DHS spokesman said Monday that the proposed new program, the Interior Removal Initiative, is "the same program but with a different name." He said it builds on MIRP and the pilot will be launched in October.

Under the new program, immigrants who qualify will not be given the option of accepting the flight home. It will also be expanded to a Mexican national apprehended anywhere in the country, not just those in Arizona.

Immigrants deemed qualified for the program will undergo a medical screening and an interview with Mexican consular officials to determine if they should be placed on a charter flight to Mexico City.

Mexican Embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday said the old program was not implemented this summer "due to the realignment of programs and budget priorities within the Department of Homeland Security." Despite that, he said, both governments continue to operate "an array of permanent measures to prevent the loss of human life at our common border."

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada called the old program a positive and successful one and he said he definitely supports what it tried to do.

"It gives them [illegal immigrants] the opportunity to go back home safely and hopefully readjust to their lives, and that they will stay," Estrada said.

He vigorously endorsed the safety afforded by this direct transfer to Mexico, as opposed to facing the desert heat as well as the smugglers.

"[The MIRP] disrupted the human smugglers from having contact with these people that are paying to go to Mexico," he said.

Cronkite News,

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