Saturday, March 01, 2008

One way flights to El Salvador courtesy of ICE

A week ago I wrote about the 20,000 Salvadorans deported from the United States in 2007. Yesterday the Los Angeles Times carried a lengthy story about the journey of one Salvadoran who has become part of the growing list of immigrants deported so far this year:

Henry Fuentes closes his eyes and tries to sleep. But he can't. He is restless. He looks out the airplane window. This may be the last time he sees the United States. In less than three hours, he will land in El Salvador, a country he hasn't seen in eight years.

Fuentes hadn't planned on returning. Immigration agents arrested him at his Houston apartment last month. Now the government was flying him and 115 other illegal immigrants back to Central America. Some had just crossed the border. Others, like Fuentes, had spent years in the United States and held jobs, owned cars and started families.

Like Fuentes, most of the deportees have mixed feelings about being sent home. They are angry about being deported but relieved to be out of detention. They are excited to return to their roots but frustrated by the country's lack of work. They are anxious to be reunited with relatives in El Salvador but distraught about leaving spouses and children behind in the U.S.

"It's very, very hard for me," Fuentes said as he leaned his head back against the seat. "I feel bad, very bad. I feel happiness because I am going to see my children again. I haven't seen them in eight years. But I feel sadness because I left my children behind."

The federal government has stepped up its immigration enforcement in recent years, resulting in record numbers of detainees. Authorities are trying to free up bed space by deporting illegal immigrants quickly and efficiently. Their primary tool is a fleet of planes used to send home nearly 72,000 illegal immigrants, including about 14,100 criminals, to Central and South America in the 2007 fiscal year. That compares with 50,000 immigrants, including about 9,600 criminals, removed the year before. Authorities said they plan to arrest, detain and deport even more illegal immigrants this year.

The government has ended the practice of "catch and release" and instead is focused on "catch and return," said Michael Pitts, chief of the flight operations unit for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"It's a one-way airline," Pitts said. (more).

A narrated presentation of photos from the deportees one-way flight back to El Salvador accompanies the story.

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