Efrein Velarde hardly remembers crossing the border illegally the first time.
Just 7 years old at the time, he walked across the desert with his mother and four siblings to join his father - and they stayed.
The now-23-year-old stayed in the country until a recent DUI arrest in Longview, Wash., led to his deportation. He's been caught by the Border Patrol three times this year trying to cross back through Arizona.
This time, after serving a 75-day sentence at a detention center, he is being bused to Del Rio in South Texas as part of a Border Patrol initiative intended to make it tougher for illegal border crossers to try again.
Far from the smuggler he paid to help him last time, and in an unfamiliar town, getting back into the U.S. won't be easy. But Velarde's family, including two small children, are in Washington, and not his native Nayarit, Mexico.
"All we do is just pay a little bit more money to come right back up here, you know?" he said in English. "I really don't got much down here in Mexico. I've been all my life up there."
Started in 2008, the Border Patrol program of busing Mexican illegal immigrants caught in Arizona to other border states - officially called the Alien Transfer Exit Program - has increased in importance in the past two years as the agency works to stop the revolving door that defined illegal immigration for the greater part of the 2000s.
"We take them out of the smuggler's grasp," said Clifton Skilbred, Border Patrol assistant chief in Washington D.C. "They can at least make a decision whether they want to enter into that smuggling cycle again or not."
Most people who re-enter go back to where they entered the first time, Skilbred said.
In the Tucson Sector, the busiest on the Southwest border, nearly 44,000 illegal immigrants were returned to Mexico through the program in the first 10 months of fiscal year 2011 - 40 percent of total apprehensions.
Humanitarian groups say the confusion caused by deporting someone to an unfamiliar part of the border puts illegal crossers at greater risk of falling prey to criminals in Mexican border towns. And immigration analysts say illegal immigrants determined to return to the United States, like Velarde, won't be swayed by being dropped off in another state.
In an effort to apply greater consequences to being caught crossing the border illegally, the Border Patrol has created several initiatives in recent years.
In addition to the busing program, Operation Streamline brings a criminal conviction and possible jail time to all illegal border crossers caught in a designated zone. That used to be true only for repeat crossers and those with criminal records.
Some illegal crossers are shuffled through multiple programs, which was the case for Velarde and a group of about 20 others one recent day.
Jacinto Alonso Monguia, 39, of Mexico City, spent three months in an immigrant detention center in Florence after being caught by the Border Patrol. Despite having lived 13 years in New Jersey, where his wife and two children still live, he said he's going back to his hometown of Mexico City. His family may move to Mexico to join him.
"I don't want to try again," he said in Spanish. "Crossing is too hard."
Participants in the busing program are usually healthy Mexican men between 20 and 60 years old who don't have violent criminal records and who are not traveling with a family, Skilbred said. Many are first-timers.
"If you apply a consequence to them, you have a better opportunity to affect their behavior," Skilbred said.
The program was launched in the San Diego, El Centro and Yuma sectors in February 2008. It started in the Tucson Sector in May 2008. The agency expanded it to the Del Rio, Rio Grande Valley and Laredo sectors in April of this year.
During fiscal 2008, the agency repatriated nearly 9,000 Mexican illegal border crossers along the entire U.S.-Mexico border under the program. That number jumped to 46,000 in fiscal 2009 and dipped to 28,000 in fiscal 2010.
Through the first 10 months of this fiscal year, 66,000 people have been repatriated in the program.
With overall apprehensions down nearly 60 percent over the last six years, the program accounts for a growing portion of the total. Through July of fiscal 2010, 25 percent of people apprehended were referred to the program, up from 7 to 10 percent in 2008-2009.
Buses leave daily, and when the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program isn't offering flights home to Mexico City in the summer, there are flights as well by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some are existing routes that have empty seats.
From the Tucson Sector, illegal border crossers are bused west 300 miles to Calexico or 415 miles to San Ysidro, Calif. Others are bused east about 800 miles to Del Rio, Texas. The routes have changed, and may again. For instance, the agency dropped people in Presidio, Texas, before shifting to Del Rio this year, he said.
Right now, no deportees are bused into Arizona.
Lack of performance measures
A July 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that the Border Patrol had not created consistent, borderwide metrics to assess the effectiveness of busing illegal border crossers to other states. The GAO reached the same conclusion about other efforts to apply more serious consequences to illegal border crossing.
The Border Patrol told the GAO in 2009 that it was working on a way to evaluate the program. But during research for its July 2010 report, the GAO found no progress had been made.
Then, in response to the 2010 report, the director of the Homeland Security GAO liaison office wrote that the Border Patrol planned to create goals, objectives and performance measures for the program by the end of 2010. But those aren't finished, and there is no known timeline, Skilbred said.
How, then, does the agency gauge the success of the program?
"We use similar measures that we would use for any enforcement program: apprehension rates, recidivism, time to re-entry, re-apprehension," Skilbred said. "From an enforcement standpoint, we do see it as successful."
The recidivism rate for illegal border crossers returned in the program across the Southwest border went from 34 percent in fiscal 2009 to 27 percent in the first 10 months of fiscal 2011, agency figures show. The agency was unable to provide a comparison to the overall recidivism rate.
The Border Patrol has developed a tool that analyzes the impact of the program and other consequence initiatives, which will be used in the future to decide which programs are the best deterrents, the agency said in an email explaining the recidivism rates.
The lack of performance measures is problematic, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
"If you develop your program before you develop your performance measures and you implement it before you develop performance measures, you basically are operating on faith," Shirk said. "This is not the best basis for public policy."
The program doesn't achieve either of the stated goals of protecting repatriated Mexicans from smugglers or deterring them from additional attempts, said Jason De León, assistant professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Anthropology who has written a forthcoming article on the program for the International Migration journal.
The program makes return trips more difficult, but with smugglers across the border, a person determined to cross again won't be deterred just because he's dropped in a different border town, he said.
And by taking them away from border towns where they may at least have some familiarity, it creates new risks, he said.
Busing them away from where they were caught "doesn't protect migrants from smugglers, but rather exposes them to the less-trustworthy ones they had been trying to avoid," De León writes.
Actually, Skilbred said, busing has a strong humanitarian aspect.
It "breaks that smuggling cycle and repatriates the immigrant to an area where they can make a more conscious decision," he said.
The U.S. government has every right to enforce its laws but to call the program a humanitarian initiative is inaccurate, said Juan Manuel Calderón Jaimes, the Mexican consul in Tucson.
The Tucson Consulate sends a weekly letter to the Border Patrol detailing complaints about the program that include family separation, over-crowded holding cells, cold temperatures in holding cells, lack of food and not informing apprehended illegal immigrants of their right to meet with consulate officials in Tucson.
"We are concerned about our people being repatriated in a dignified way," Calderón said.
The Border Patrol highlights the cooperation with Mexico, including the fact that representatives from three levels of Mexican government are there to meet the repatriated border crossers when they are dropped off.
But Calderón said those notifications occur on the local level, and that the Mexican government was never consulted about the program. "Let it be clear: this is a unilateral program," Calderón said. "There is no collaboration with the Mexican government on this program."
Cooperative or not, humanitarian or not, the program doesn't work, said De León, who interviewed hundreds of repatriated migrants in 2009 in Nogales and Altar, Sonora.
"This is just a speed bump in their trip," he said. "If the prospect of death is not going to scare people away, then having to take a bus and deal with a few days of misery in a foreign border town is the least stressful of all the stuff."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org