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A look inside the government's deportation flights

CHICAGO — Guillermo Campos Ojeda stares blankly at the clouds from the jetliner's window, mentally retracing the 22 years that he lived in the United States as an illegal immigrant.

His odyssey began in 1988 with an illegal border crossing and ended in May when he was caught driving without a license. In between were double shifts at a Chicago factory, run-ins with the law, a marriage and his ultimate joy, the birth of his daughter, now 2 and a U.S. citizen.

But on this flight arranged by the federal government, his journey takes a new turn: Ojeda is being deported along with 52 other illegal immigrants. Their day starts at a suburban Chicago processing center and ends with a walk across a bridge from Brownsville, Texas, into Mexico.

"For 10 years, I worked two jobs. I didn't ask the government for anything, not welfare, nothing," he said in Spanish, awkwardly wiping away tears with the backs of his shackled hands. "I'm not perfect, but there are consequences, and I have to pay."

Flights like this one leave from some 40 U.S. cities, sometimes on a daily basis. In the last year, more than 350,000 illegal immigrants have been deported — about 220,000 by plane. The number of immigrants sent back to their homelands has more than tripled in 10 years and is expected to continue soaring.

• • •

The day starts before sunrise for each of the 53 deportees brought from area prisons to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Broadview, Ill.

In large holding cells, many of the immigrants wait wrapped in scratchy, brown blankets as Mexican consulate officials review their papers and give each $20.

Ojeda says goodbye to his wife and child over a phone in a room where glass separates visitors. Speaking into the telephone, he looks intently at his wife and baby girl. Nearby a sign reads, "No touching allowed."

Most of those aboard the flight came to authorities' attention after being convicted of a crime in the U.S. One was convicted of murder, 16 of assault, 11 of driving under the influence, nine of drug charges and six of theft. Six had no criminal background.

By 9 a.m., they are all lined up, searched and shackled. The sound of chains echoes down the hallway.

• • •

At a quiet terminal away from the hustle of the nation's second-busiest airport, deportation flights leave O'Hare International Airport twice a week. They are chartered either by ICE or the U.S. Marshals Service.

As passengers are patted down and searched, security officers lay out the immigrants' bags on the tarmac, each one marked with a mug shot.

Moises Calvillo, a Los Angeles man with a shaved head and goatee, has one of the longest rap sheets in the group — weapons charges, battery, immigration offenses. This is his third deportation.

The 46-year-old arrived in 1979 from Tijuana and started making jewelry at a shop in southern California. The next few decades were laden with arrests and convictions.

He expects this to be his final trip back to Mexico. The jewelry business had been declining and communication with his eight children had been minimal. They are all U.S. citizens, including a probation officer, a soldier stationed in Iraq and a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

"I can't complain," he says while awaiting the flight. "Nobody mistreated me."

• • •

Some of the immigrants sent away on these flights will be back, perhaps soon. Authorities at ICE say they must carry out the law, even when that means returning the same people repeatedly at an average cost of $650 per person for the one-way flight.

"It's a fact of life. They're the border-crossers, that's what they do," ICE's chief of flight operations, Craig Charles, said. "They live there. They come across, and they'll get caught. It is a revolving door."

Later this year, the agency is set to start a tactic aimed at deterring immediate recrossings. Flights will be taken to the interior of Mexico, which will make it harder for immigrants to return right away.

• • •

Aboard the plane, the journey feels similar to a commercial flight, except for the nearly two dozen armed guards and the soft clinking of handcuff chains that can sometimes be heard amid the roar of the jet engines.

Sitting in 9A — a few rows away from the male passengers — is 28-year-old Yesenia Pereyda Martinez, the sole woman in the group.

The suburban Chicago mother of three crossed illegally into the U.S. in 2000 by walking for two days through the desert. She carries a painful reminder of the journey every day: her toes are deformed and stubby from the shoes she wore. Now wearing anything but open-toed shoes is painful. On the day of the deportation flight, she wears fuzzy, black flip-flops.

Martinez sits still nearly the entire three-hour flight. Her brown-bag lunch of a bologna sandwich, vanilla cake and apple goes untouched.

"I am scared," she says.

She spends the flight thinking of her children: 8-year-old Julianna, who loves to draw and do homework; 6-year-old Guadalupe, who rebels against homework; and their 1-year-old baby brother.

Martinez took a risky trip back to Mexico earlier this year to see an ailing family member for the last time. Then the smuggling van returning her to the U.S. was pulled over by an Illinois state trooper hours from her home in the Chicago suburb of Cicero.

Her future plans are murky. But she knows her mother, sister and her partner, Luis, will take care of the children. She wants them to finish their education. The children think their mom is just on a trip to see family.

"They don't want to leave," she said.

• • •

When the plane lands in Harlingen, Texas, the immigrants are loaded on a bus that drives by fields of tall sorghum on the way to the border.

In Brownsville, officers unshackle each detainee, hand them their belongings and walk them across the bridge.

As the group crosses, one pedestrian spots them, throws his hands up and mutters, "It's a revolving door!"

Waiting on the other side are smugglers looking for deported immigrants, who are easily spotted by the bags of belongings that bear their names and mug shots.

Ojeda was among the last people released. In 1998, he tried to cross and was apprehended by border agents who sent him back the same day. He made another attempt shortly after.

But this time, he says, he won't try to come back. The consequences are too great: an increased jail sentence and the threat to his health, especially because of his diabetes.

Carrying a small bag of clothes, a little cash and a two-week supply of insulin, the 40-year-old man walks over the bridge. Despite the hardship of separation, he won't consider asking his family to join him in Mexico.

"There isn't work. There aren't resources. There are a lot of drugs. There's a lot of violence," Ojeda says. "I wouldn't bring my daughter into that."

A look inside the government's deportation flights 08/01/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 1, 2010 9:16pm]
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