ICE Air flew 367,000 illegal immigrants home last year
The nondescript 737 jet taxied to the front of the runway line at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
Aboard the flight, 53 passengers stared out windows as their rising plane banked toward Mexico and their handcuffs glinted in the morning sun.
This is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Flight Repatriate, a booming airline ferrying illegal immigrants out of the country.
Flying worldwide from O'Hare and 22 other airports, the so-called ICE Air planes transported more than 367,000 illegal immigrants, including 11,500 from the Chicago area, out of the U.S. from October 2007 to October 2008—a 26 percent increase over the previous fiscal year and 77 percent more than in 2006. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently called for ways to "expedite removal" of thousands more illegal immigrants. The directive surprised advocates who have been lobbying for fewer deportations while they build momentum to reintroduce Immigration reform legislation in Congress by July.
"That was a signal to me that we need to work quicker and speak more effectively to the Obama camp," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is organizing Immigration rallies in 14 cities.
"The vast majority of undocumented immigrants don't violate any law, other than their Immigration status," Gutierrez argued.
On board Flight Repatriate during a recent trip to the border near El Paso, Texas, the passengers embodied the dashed dreams of deported immigrants everywhere.
Some fretted over U.S.-born children. Others stewed over U.S. residency applications filed years ago. On a flight where many passengers were convicted of other U.S. crimes, still more grappled with alcoholism and other demons that make them poster targets for arrest.
"I shouted to the police: 'Then, kill me! Kill me!' " Moises Rivera, 35, boasted about the January night he guzzled eight shots of whiskey and fell asleep in his car at a Little Village traffic light. In jail, he sobered up to realize he was heading back to Mexico.
Near him sat Felipe Rodriguez, who was pulled over for speeding. The sunken-eyed restaurant busboy was arrested after showing an Illinois state trooper a fake driver's license.
"I don't smoke; I don't drink," said Rodriguez, 55, describing himself as a bookworm. "My whole family is in Chicago and Indiana, where we were happy."
Following years of secrecy, Immigration officials are more willing to show how deportations work after several highly publicized allegations last year of mistreatment. Among those are an ongoing lawsuit on behalf of deportees who say they were injected with dangerous sedatives such as Haldol, normally used for schizophrenia patients. Federal authorities said the practice is reserved for extremely unruly passengers and requires a federal court order and a doctor's consent.
"It's our goal to be transparent," said Gail Montenegro, Chicago spokeswoman for ICE. "We are mandated to enforce the Immigration laws as they are written and we pursue that mandate fairly and humanely."
The flights from O'Hare leave twice a week. The process begins before dawn inside a squat, brick federal detention center in suburban Broadview.
There, inmates arrived from several county jails in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin that house immigrants arrested in raids or at home.
Bleary-eyed, the inmates reclaimed items they had when caught—fanny packs, jackets, wallets.
After a short bus ride to the O'Hare tarmac, some shivered against the stabbing winter wind in T-shirts and jeans as guards frisked them and checked their mouths for weapons or drugs.
"People tell you about all the opportunities in the United States, but they don't reveal the bad things like this, where they treat us like animals," muttered Ismael Martinez, 34, who spent five years in Chicago supporting three daughters and a wife before he was arrested in December for domestic battery.
Several noted the novelty of a plane ride after risking their lives in the desert to enter the U.S.
"This is the life we have," said Mario Barradas, who arrived from the Mexican gulf state of Veracruz and was arrested for driving without a license. "Nobody here knows I'm leaving and nobody there knows I'm coming."
After 57 inmates were picked up in Dallas, some ate turkey sandwiches as they eyed the dozen ICE agents standing guard in the aisle or trading jokes up in the "first class" section.
Several contemplated what they'd do in the Mexican border town of Juarez, where warring drug cartels and other violence contributed to 1,600 homicides last year.
"If it's anything like Laredo, I'm outta there," said Roberto Rodriguez, 26.
Carried across the Texas border as a baby, the oil worker preferred speaking English in his thick twang.
Like others, Rodriguez has been deported several times.
Each time, he said, "I walk right back across the border and tell them I don't have no ID. It works! If you talk to me, I don't sound illegal."
Turning to an incredulous ICE agent, Rodriguez added: "If I come over again, can you help me with my case?"
After applause for a smooth landing in El Paso, others walked into Juarez rubbing their freed wrists and formulating their own plans to sneak back.
Victor Jimenez, 43, watched the thin, leather-skinned beggars along Juarez's main strip—where police sirens and rattling assault rifles later filled the night—and vowed to return to his family in suburban Cook County.
"My whole life is there," he reasoned. "Here, only pain."
After a few days, Rodriguez did try. He was caught near the Laredo border last week and is in ICE custody for the fifth time.