Analyzing Border Enforcement Operations: Interior Repatriation Programs

September 22, 2012

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates a number of repatriation programs. These repatriation programs operate in the context of unprecedented levels of border security, dramatically reduced levels of migration from Mexico to the U.S., and a concerted effort by the U.S. Government to increase efficiencies and reduce fiscal waste. This paper focuses primarily on the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program (MIRP), also known as the Programa de Repatriación Voluntaria al Interior (PRVI). It also briefly examines other repatriation and enforcement operations in effect along the U.S. border with Mexico.

UPDATE: The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that MIRP was never initiated in the summer of 2012.[1] This could largely be due to the fact that border apprehensions, a measure of attempted crossings, are at their lowest point since 1971.[2]

What are Interior Repatriation Programs?

The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program is a DHS initiative established in coordination with the Government of Mexico.[3] Under MIRP, eligible immigrants apprehended crossing the border illegally in high risk areas of the Sonora Desert during the peak summer months are repatriated to the interior of Mexico, closer to their homes or points of origin.[4] Participation is considered voluntary. Within DHS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have responsibilities for implementing MIRP.

The objectives of MIRP are to remove Mexican nationals to the interior of Mexico to save lives,[5] combat organized crime linked to human smuggling and trafficking, and discourage illegal border crossings.[6] CBP has said that the program breaks the smuggling cycle by removing participants from the immediate control of smuggling organizations.[7]

MIRP was first launched in 2004 through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between DHS and the Government of Mexico establishing the framework for the nations to work cooperatively in safely repatriating apprehended Mexican nationals who agree to leave the U.S.[8] From 2004 to 2006, the Border Patrol, which is an agency within CBP, operated MIRP; however, in 2006 ICE took over the operations of MIRP while CBP continued to provide initial processing for MIRP participants.[9] To date, more than 110,893 Mexican nationals have been safely returned under the program’s eight summers of operation.[10] In 2011, MIRP repatriated 8,893 Mexican nationals to the interior of Mexico during the program’s 80 operational days with a total of 79 flights.[11]

On February 27, 2012, during an official visit to Mexico City, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that the United States will increase repatriations of Mexicans by air.[12] The Secretary described a new repatriation program that appears distinct from MIRP, but will likewise fly deportees to their hometowns in the interior of Mexico (it has since been confirmed that this program is called the “Interior Removal Initiative”).[13] The new initiative, being launched in April 2012, apparently emerged as a response to complaints from Mexican border cities’ along the U.S.-Mexico border that the presence of high numbers of deportees contribute to crime.[14] The program also seeks to separate deportees from criminal cartels operating along the border.[15] DHS described the initiative as a “humanitarian repatriation pilot program.” Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior referred to the program as an effort to improve safety for its nationals and facilitate their return home while observing human rights.[16] Little has been made public about the logistics of this new program.

How Does MIRP Work?

Under MIRP, Mexican nationals apprehended in the Border Patrol’s Yuma and Tucson Sectors are screened for participation. Eligible candidates are given the option to be flown to Mexico City rather than repatriated via other more typical methods, such as busing to locations along the U.S.-Mexico border.[17]

First, the Border Patrol processes and screens eligible participants. Immigrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the Yuma and Tucson Sectors are taken to DHS facilities in Nogales and Yuma, Arizona, where they are medically screened.[18] In addition, MIRP candidates are given the opportunity to meet with the staff of the Mexican Consulate who explain the program in detail.[19] Next, screened individuals are sent over to ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operation’s (ERO) Removal Coordination Unit, which is responsible for providing oversight and coordination of deportation flights.[20] After an eligible candidate expresses in writing his/her voluntary decision to participate in the program, he/she is included in a flight to Mexico City.

In 2011, the U.S. Government offered one daily flight through MIRP from Tucson to Mexico City instead of the two daily flights offered in previous years.[21] The reduction in the number of daily flights is attributed to a significant decrease in apprehensions of border crossers.[22] Each flight has a capacity for 126 passengers.[23] Once MIRP participants land in Mexico City, they are provided with bus transportation to their hometowns in the interior of Mexico.[24]

Who is Eligible to Participate?

There are several limitations on eligibility for MIRP. First and foremost, MIRP is only available to Mexican nationals who originated in the interior of Mexico (towns in Central and Southern Mexico) and not in the regions of northern Mexico near the United States border. [25]

Second, since this program was designed in part as a humanitarian effort to save individuals from the intense summer heat, it only applies in summer months in the high risk areas of the Sonora Desert encompassed in the Yuma and Tucson sectors.[26]

In addition, only individuals without criminal records are eligible to participate.[27] Also, individuals who have a fear of returning to Mexico likely wouldn’t agree to be returned through MIRP. A person seeking protection from Mexico in the United States would be reluctant to voluntarily participate in a program that results in repatriation and requires screening by a representative from the Mexican Consulate.

When screening individuals, CBP gives preference for participation to those identified as being at a “high risk.” This includes women, children, the elderly, and the infirm since these populations are most vulnerable to the heat in the desert and face greater risk of victimization by criminal elements operating in border regions.[28]


The government of Mexico, through its Embassy, Consulates in Arizona, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, closely monitors MIRP’s operation and evaluates its outcomes.[29]

Also, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) analyzed MIRP in a report in 2010.[30] They criticized ICE’s ERO for not establishing performance measures to evaluate whether objectives have actually been met, particularly regarding any deterrent value toward would-be crossers. DHS rejected the GAO recommendation, stating that adopting performance measures would result in a focus change from MIRP’s original life-saving objective.[31]

Although ICE had not established any performance measures to evaluate MIRP’s effectiveness as of last year, there is some evidence that immigrants processed through MIRP may be less likely to reenter the United States illegally.[32] According to a 2005 Homeland Security Institute study, 7 percent of immigrants repatriated through the program were re-apprehended during the following 2½-month period, while 28 percent of immigrants not repatriated through MIRP were re-apprehended during the same time period.[33] Border Patrol figures show that, in 2010, more than 12 percent of those repatriated through MIRP were rearrested by immigration agents during the months the program was in operation. In comparison, the Tucson Sector reported an overall 30 percent recidivism rate of non-program participants.[34] However, it is important to keep in mind that individuals processed through MIRP were not randomly assigned to the program. Therefore, other factors aside from MIRP participation may have affected these re-apprehension rates.

While statistics regarding MIRP participants may indicate a decline in attempted unauthorized border crossings, the significant overall drop in apprehensions of border crossers by the Border Patrol weakens the probability of such causal connection. During the 2011 fiscal year, the Border Patrol made 327,577 apprehensions along the Mexican border­ — representing an 80 percent drop from more than 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000.[35] The number of apprehensions in 2011 was the lowest since 1971.[36] While apprehension data may not be representative of the actual level of unauthorized border crossings, the decline is an unmistakable indicator of fewer attempted crossings.[37]

Numerous factors may explain the declining rate of unlawful entries in the United States. First, the unprecedented growth of border enforcement has made it harder to cross illegally today than ever before in history.[38] Second, the decreased demand of immigrant workers as a result of the economic downturn may have further discouraged unauthorized crossings. Finally, improvements in the Mexican economy have affected levels of emigration by Mexicans.

In addition to MIRP, the Border Patrol has embraced other policies and programs intended to deter illegal immigration.[39] The multiple “consequence” programs operated by the Border Patrol to curb illegal entry, such as Operation Streamline,[40] are important to consider when assessing MIRP’s effectiveness in discouraging unauthorized crossings. The Border Patrol’s announced shift towards tougher deterrence programs comes after MIRP’s participation numbers in 2011 dropped significantly compared to the previous year. This is particularly important given that MIRP is a program with no prosecutorial consequences.[41] However, MIRP is not without impact on the participants. Under MIRP, Mexican nationals apprehended in the Arizona desert undergo an extensive process, e.g., taken to DHS facilities, medically screened, allowed to meet with the Mexican Consulate, and processed to be flown to Mexico, before they are flown to Mexico City.[42] Furthermore, the program places a physical barrier between migrants and the United States, making it more difficult and costly for them to attempt re-entry.[43]

Some critics of MIRP argue that it is prone to abuse, alleging that individuals may use this program to obtain a free ride home, return to the United States, and when they are ready to leave, receive another free plane ride home. However, both the United States and Mexican governments have an interest in maintaining the humanitarian nature of this program. Thus, repeat participation in the program by any one individual is closely monitored and eligibility is jointly determined by Mexican and U.S. officials on a case by case basis.[44] Further, individuals who are deported through more traditional means also receive transportation paid for by the U.S. Government, albeit not always to the interior of Mexico. Additionally, only individuals apprehended in the border sectors covered by MIRP would be eligible to participate.

Other criticism asserts that MIRP is nothing more than a costly shell game used by both governments to show they are doing something about the ongoing immigration stalemate in the United States and the resulting deaths in the desert of migrants each year. Although the number of migrant bodies found each year in Arizona’s deserts does not suggest a corollary decrease since MIRP launched, the 2011 fiscal year recorded fewer deaths in the Arizona desert than in the prior fiscal year.[45] In fiscal year 2011, 191 migrant deaths were recorded, a 23 percent drop compared with the 249 migrant deaths recorded in the 2010 fiscal year.[46] Migrant deaths remain a major concern despite the 2011 decrease, thus, making MIRP’s life saving objective an important one.

Cost Analysis

The effectiveness of repatriation programs has been criticized in context of costs. Specifically, some non-governmental humanitarian groups consider MIRP’s flights a wasteful use of money.[47] These groups argue that MIRP fails to address the larger reasons migrants risk their lives crossing the border and that many of those flown back home are later caught attempting to re-entry illegally.[48]

MIRP is renegotiated each year with the U.S. entirely financing the cost of transportation[49] and Mexico providing consular support for their nationals and coordinating trips to interior cities upon their arrival to Mexico City.[50] MIRP costs have ranged from $15.4 million in 2004 to $5.5 million in 2009.[51] MIRP’s total cost for 2011 is unavailable but is expected to fall between $9 million and $11 million.[52] The cost of the new humanitarian pilot program being launched in April 2012 is unknown. Under the agreement, Mexico and the U.S. will share the costs of flying back Mexican nationals who are deported.[53] The U.S. government will finance the first part of the trip, and the Mexican government will pay for the final part of the trip.[54]


The stated objectives of interior repatriation programs — saving lives, breaking the smuggling cycle along the Southern border and preserving the human rights of migrants — are legitimate and worthwhile. MIRP was established to avoid migrant crossers’ death in hostile desert terrain as well as to discourage repeated unauthorized entries. Though its effectiveness remains unascertainable, it has likely saved many lives since its inception. This alone is a powerful rationale to continue the seasonal implementation of MIRP. While it is true that the real reasons migrants risk their lives crossing the border need to be addressed to curtail unlawful crossings, no money spent to save a life is a waste. Life-saving programs like MIRP should be maintained.

Nevertheless, the creation of performance measures and monitoring of progress towards those measures is also necessary to detect faults in this program and similar initiatives, reduce waste, and improve success rates.

Without undervaluing the humanitarian value of MIRP and the new initiative, it is important to note that unprecedented spending on border security cannot remedy our broken immigration system. Comprehensive reform of the immigration system would obviate the need for many immigrants to risk their lives crossing the border illegally while saving the government billions of dollars currently spent on border enforcement measures.








[1] Peter Ortega, “U.S. Suspends Immigration Flights Back to Mexico,” The Arizona Republic, September 11, 2012, available at,

[2] Department of Homeland Security Annual Report, “Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2011,” September 2012, available at,

[3] Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of the Press Secretary, “United States and Mexico resume voluntary humanitarian interior repatriation program” (Aug. 24, 2009), available at:; National Immigration Forum, correspondence with a Mexican official familiar with the program (Aug. 2011).

[4] DHS, see footnote 3.

[5] In 2010’s calendar year a total of 249 illegal border crossers were found dead in Arizona’s desert, a record high. There were 221 bodies recovered in 2009, compared with 190 in 2008, 237 in 2007, 216 in 2006, and 241 in 2005. Brady McCombs, “US restarts flights carrying migrants to Mexico’s interior” (July 12, 2011), Arizona Daily Star, available at:; Brady McCombs, “Repatriation flights for crossers resume” (June 4, 2010), Arizona Daily Star, available at:

[6] U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), “ALIEN SMUGGLING: DHS Needs to Better Leverage Investigative Resources and Measure Program Performance along the Southwest Border” (May 2010), available at:; Department of Homeland Security, “Budget-in-Brief: Fiscal Year 2013” (Feb. 2012), available at:

[7] GAO Report, see footnote 4; DHS “Budget-in-Brief”, see footnote 6.

[8] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), News Releases, “United States and Mexico resume voluntary interior repatriation program for the fifth consecutive year” (July 21, 2008), available at:

[9] GAO Report, see footnote 6.

[10] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, News Releases, “United States, Mexico resume voluntary interior repatriation program” (July 11, 2011), available at:; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, News Releases, “Removal Statistics” (Oct. 18, 2011), available at:

[11] DHS, “Budget-in-Brief. Fiscal Year 2013”, see footnote 6.

[12] Sandra Dibble, “Pilot program to fly deportees to Mexican interior” (Feb. 27, 2012), U-T San Diego, available at:; also U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Press Secretary, “Readout of Secretary Napolitano’s Visit to Mexico and Guatemala” (Feb. 27, 2012), available at:

[13] Id; see footnote 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16], “Fortalecen Cooperacion y Dialogy Mexico y EU” (Feb. 27th, 2012), available at:

[17] ICE, News Releases (July 11, 2011), see footnote 10.

[18] DHS, see footnote 3.

[19] Id.

[20] GAO Report, see footnote 6.

[21] Austin Counts, “Annual program has benefits for border towns” (July 12, 2011), available at:

[22] McCombs (July 12, 2011), see footnote 5.

[23] Id.

[24] DHS, see footnote 3; Embassy of the United States, Mexico City, Mexico, Press Releases, “Governments of the United States and Mexico Renew Cooperation to Protect Migrants from Dangerous Summer Conditions” (July 11, 2011), available at:

[25] Embassy of the United States, see footnote 24.

[26] Id; ICE, News Release (July 21, 2008), see footnote 8.

[27] Id; ICE, News Release (July 21, 2008), see footnote 8.

[28] GAO Report, see footnote 6.

[29] National Immigration Forum, correspondence with a Mexican official familiar with the program (Aug. 2011).

[30] GAO Report, see footnote 6.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Daniel Gonzalez, “Illegal immigrant repatriation cost, effectiveness questioned” (Aug. 21, 2011), The Arizona Republic, available at:

[35] Fox News, “US Border Patrol to toughen policies on illegal immigrants” (Jan. 17, 2012), available at:

[36] Id.

[37] Edward Alden, “Immigration and Border Control,” Cato Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, 113 (Winter 2012), available at:

[38] Id.

[39] See Elliot Spagat, “AP Exclusive: Border Patrol to toughen policy” (Jan. 17, 2012) Associated Press, available at:

[40] See National Immigration Forum, “Operation Streamline: Unproven Benefits Outweighed by Cost to Taxpayers” (September 12, 2012), available at:

[41] GOA Report, see footnote 6.

[42] DHS, see footnote 3.

[43] Id; also see Counts, footnote 21.

[44] National Immigration Forum, correspondence with a Mexican official familiar with the program (Aug. 2011).

[45] Department of Homeland Security,, “CBP U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector Announces Fiscal Year-End Accomplishments” (December 16, 2011), available at:

[46] Id; also McCombs (July 12, 2011), see footnote 5.

[47] Gonzalez, see footnote 34.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Embassy of the United States, see footnote 24.

[51] Uriel J. Garcia, “Mexican repatriation flight program falls to lowest level ever” (Oct. 5, 2011), Cronkite News Service, available at:

[52] Id.

[53] Dibble, footnote 12.

[54] Id.