The 2010 interior repatriation program was the longest at 120 days. Arizona Daily Star file photo

The eighth annual Mexican Interior Repatriation Program will feature one flight a day instead of two and is expected to cost the U.S. government about $10 million.

Under the voluntary program, non-criminal Mexican illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol in Arizona are offered free flights to Mexico City. From there, they are given bus passes to return to their hometowns.

The goal of the annual summer initiative is to prevent illegal immigrants from trying to cross the border again in the hopes of saving lives during the scorching summer months when hundreds die each year in Arizona.

“Without this program, many of these migrants would perish in the desert,” said Tom Homan, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deputy executive assistant director.

The U.S. government has spent $85.8 million to fly more than 116,000 people home since the program began in 2004.

But there's no way to know if the program has achieved its goal of saving lives because there are no measures in place to evaluate it, found a July 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

The Border Patrol's Tucson and Yuma Sectors are the only ones conducting this program.

This year’s program will run for 80 days with the last flight leaving on Sept. 28. That’s the length the program has run for most years, but fewer than last year when it lasted 120 days.

Officials decided to offer one flight a day this year due to a significant decrease in apprehensions in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector. The fiscal year 2010 apprehensions were down by 57 percent from the 2004 figure, Border Patrol figures show.

The program is expected to cost the U.S. government between $9 - $11 million this year, Homan said. That’s less than the average yearly cost of the program and less than the $14.8 million spent in 2010.

Despite this program, Border Patrol rescue efforts and other live-saving programs run by non-governmental organizations, border deaths in Arizona have not decreased in the last decade in Arizona.

More than 2,100 illegal border crossers have been found dead in Arizona's desert in the last decade, with the yearly death toll hovering around 200 a year. The 249 bodies found in calender year 2010 were a record.

The tally this year is behind that record-setting pace. The 82 border deaths since Jan. 1 are the fewest at this date since 2003, when there were 79 border deaths through the date, the Arizona Daily Star's border-death database shows. Through July 5, 2010, there had been 124 bodies recovered.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or