Three times a week at Mesa’s Williams Gateway Airport, scores of illegal immigrants experience the end of their American dream.
Among the helicopters, prop planes and jets buzzing through the East Valley’s airspace, little noticed are the somber departures of thousands of illegal immigrants.
The airline is the federal Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, the chief flight attendant is a stern-looking U.S. Marshal and the inflight meal is a government-issued sandwich and a cookie.
"If we can hold them, they won’t come across," said Philip C. Crawford, field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Detention and Removal Operations. "If they know we are going to hold them and remove them, that is an effective deterrent."
In the fiscal year that ended Friday, almost 14,000 immigrants — most of them from Central America — have been deported to their home countries from Williams Gateway. Illegal immigrants from Mexico are bused to the border and dropped off.
Busy as the airport is, it’s just a small part of a system that annually moves nearly 300,000 federal prisoners and illegal migrants.
This sunny Friday morning, it was time for 116 Guatemalans to go home.
On the tarmac sat an MD-80 jet, painted a featureless white aside from its identification number on the fuselage. Three buses were lined up behind the plane. When the illegal immigrants are on the buses, they are in ICE custody; on the plane, they’re the responsibility of the U.S. Marshals Service.
The vehicles had driven 40 miles from the Florence Service Processing Center, an ICE facility that can house and hold hearings for about 1,100 detained immigrants. The Eloy Detention Center is where immigrants who have committed crimes are kept until their deportation.
The immigrants arrive at the detention centers tired, dirty, thirsty and hungry, Crawford said. They leave fed, clean and wearing laundered clothes.
The women arrived first on Friday. They piled out of their bus and were searched by female guards, who looked through the migrants’ shoes, pockets and hair for contraband.
Then the men disembarked their buses, one of which had a country music station blaring on its radio. They were patted down and searched.
Soon the plane was almost full of immigrants, a dozen Airline Enforcement Officers and a nurse. No criminals were being deported on the flight.
At $400 per immigrant, this flight to Guatemala City cost about $45,000. Sometimes, immigration officials must deport a small number of people, and a chartered plane isn’t cost-effective. Then, the government uses seats on commercial flights.
At exactly 8:30 a.m., the jet pushed back from its spot on the tarmac. It taxied to the northeast end of the runway, turned around and roared down the runway.
On every flight, the moment the wheels leave the ground marks the first time almost every immigrant has traveled by plane.
Soon, the Guatemalans’ round-trip voyage would be complete: Weeks, months, years to reach the U.S.; four hours to return home.
"During the flight, some of them are very excited, some of them sleep," said U.S. Marshal Patti Carson, supervisor of this flight. "Usually, when we touch down in whatever city, there’s clapping."