They are the mystery ships of our borderland highways, embarked upon covert voyages across a barren and treacherous desert. Only in distant ports do they finally alight, these enormous buses with their darkly tinted windows, and their human cargo slated for return to Mexico.
According to the federal government, such passages have a purpose: Each year for the last several years, the U.S. Border Patrol has sent many detainees to far-flung ports for deportation. The goals are to disrupt local smuggling routes and discourage constant border jumpers.
Similar logic drives another program that loads returnees onto planes bound for Mexico's deep interior.
But despite the initial attractiveness of this simple idea—making it harder for people to sneak across the border by dragging them far from their smuggling contacts and familiar routes—the facts suggest that these are among the least effective of Border Patrol strategies, and often the most dangerous for migrants.
Yet that doesn't mean our federal protectors have stopped using them, any more than they've abandoned their role as cheerleaders for the $2.6 billion, 650-mile border fence that's not only become an environmental nightmare—savaging wildlife habitat and disrupting animal migration patterns—but also remains questionable in its effectiveness. Even a Border Patrol spokesman concedes that, for smugglers, the big-ticket barrier is little more than "a speed bump in the desert."
His point was driven home in March, when Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake made a splashy security tour of the border, where they spotted a woman blithely scaling the 18-foot-high steel fence.
So it goes for the Border Patrol's Alien Transfer Exit Program, which is a fancy name for those tedious bus rides to border crossings in California and Texas, from which detainees are routinely returned to Mexico.
Like the big fence, the exit program is considered largely ineffective. But this pattern of continuing to employ expensive, taxpayer-funded strategies with no demonstrated rate of success seems habitual with the Border Patrol and its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And it's certainly not frowned upon by the enormous industry built around "securing" the U.S.-Mexico line.
Making matter worse, in February a top official with the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that the CBP can't even measure how successful its various strategies may be. Rebecca Gambler, the GAO's director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, first described the Border Patrol's new focus on tapping intelligence sources to gauge the risks from cross-border terrorism, smuggling and illegal immigration.
But then she questioned whether we'll ever really find out if it works. "Border Patrol officials stated that the agency is in the process of developing performance goals and measures for assessing the progress of its efforts to secure the border between ports of entry and for informing the identification and allocation of resources needed to secure the border," Gambler said, "but has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing them."
English translation: The agency still doesn't know what among its expensive bag of tricks actually works. That continued failure has grown critical, as Congress debates far-reaching immigration reform that hinges on whether we've first "secured" the border. The Alien Transfer Exit Program could be a poster child for this informational rabbit hole. Indeed, a May report from the Congressional Research Service shows that detainees returned to Mexico through ATEP are reapprehended far more often than other returnees. In fact, a full 27.8 percent of them end up getting caught again, compared with only 16.6 percent of those returned through the limited-rights, expedited removal program, or the mere 6.6 percent of people returned under the standard, notice-in-the-mail process for folks who've overstayed their visas.
Nonetheless, officials with the CBP defend their Alien Transfer program. "From a Customs and Border Protection perspective we do consider ATEP an effective program," writes agency spokesman Victor Brabble in an email to the Weekly. "As designed, the program contributes significantly to the denial, disruption and dismantling of Alien Smuggling Organizations' (ASO) ability to operate in sectors participating in the program."
Regardless of its effectiveness, the number of bus riders continues to climb; in fiscal year 2012, the Tucson sector "repatriated" 47,155 people through the ATEP program, up from just 19,163 in 2010 and only 5,542 in 2008.
And just how is the significant contribution of this program measured? We're left to guess. Just as we are with its price tag for taxpayers: CBP refused to release cost figures for the program without a formal and time-consuming Freedom of Information Act request from this paper—which meant those numbers were not available for our readers as this story went to press.
But to critics of the program, the human costs are obvious. Among those detractors is Juanita Molina, executive director of the Border Action Network, a Tucson-based immigrant advocacy group.
Molina recalls visiting Cuidad Acuña, a Mexican town that shares a crossing with Del Rio, Texas. While there, she saw dozens of men being herded into Mexico. "All of them had been rounded up in Nogales and Sasabe," she says. "They were being deported without money or belongings, because they had gone through multiple prisons here in the U.S. That makes them very vulnerable to the cartels. It's the fuel for people-trafficking."
This situation is well known to Esteban Tiznado-Reyna. The Native American man has been deported to Mexico numerous times despite a 2008 district court ruling that deemed him a U.S. citizen. He's currently in federal detention in Florence, Ariz., potentially facing deportation once again.
Though Tiznado-Reyna has family in Tucson, and generally crosses from Mexico into Arizona, federal authorities once bused him 1,000 miles away to a port in Laredo, Texas, before returning him to Mexico. He describes then being kidnapped and held for several days in the Mexican town of Nuevo Laredo by men hoping for ransom. "They were dressed like federales," he says, "and they had AK-47s."
Tiznado-Reyna says they stuffed him into a blood-stained room that reeked of feces and urine. There he subsisted with 18 other captives on a small cup of water and one egg each day. Though he eventually escaped, he says the experience left him traumatized—and frightened about his future. "When they deport me, I'm living on the streets like I'm homeless, begging for money."
To Molina, such stories are disturbingly common. "There's no idea of what happens to people beyond the border," she says. "Dropping somebody off so far from where they can get back home, with absolutely no resources—you might as well put them on the moon."