Deportees use revolving door to return to US

Phoenix, Aug 30 | Updated: Aug 31 2007, 05:32am hrs
When a heavy knock came on the door of her Phoenix home, Mari knew that the immigration police had finally caught up with her. Arrested and held for a month in a US jail, she was sent back to Guatemala on a prison flight. But four weeks later, after raising a $5,000 smuggling fee, she was back with her family in Arizona.

As US authorities step up deportations of illegal immigrants, a growing number of them, like Mari, are simply turning round and heading back stateside to rejoin families and resume their lives. "Guatemala is no longer my home. All my roots are here in the country I have lived in since I was 15 years old ... I felt I had no option but to try to come back," said Mari, which is not her real name.

The little reported phenomenon of the repeat lawbreakers was highlighted by the high-profile case of Elvira Arellano, the Mexican illegal immigrant deported earlier this month for slipping back into the United States despite a previous removal in 1997.

"I know a lot of people in the same position as Elvira ... their whole life is here," said Mari's husband, Samuel, who is also an undocumented immigrant. "If they throw them out of the country, sooner or later they will be back."

Some 12 million illegal immigrants live in the shadows in the United States. Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents deported 183,431 people amid stepped up raids in workplaces and homes nationwide.

ICE said removing Arellano - who sought sanctuary in a Chicago church and became a cause celebre for pro-immigration activists - was necessary to enforce US immigration laws, and ensure that they were applied fairly.

"Miss Arellano willfully violated those laws and must face the consequences of her illegal actions," Jim Hayes, ICE director in Los Angeles, told a news conference.

Although no records are kept of the numbers of deported immigrants sneaking back in to the country -- as Arellano did to join her 8-year-old US-born son Saul - anecdotal evidence suggests that it is widespread.

"Deportation is a revolving door," said Elias Bermudez, the founder of Immigrants Without Borders, an advocacy group which works with thousands of illegal immigrants in the border state of Arizona. "People are picked up at their homes and deported, and some of them are back in three or four days, so it is not an effective policy," he added.

Among those who have made the trip back is Demetrio, a Mexican waiter arrested and removed from Los Angeles in 2006, leaving behind a Guatemalan wife and two young children. He declined to give his last name. Just seven weeks after being deported he slipped back into California through the gritty border city of Tijuana, using border crossing documents widely available on the black market. "My children were crying, my wife's heart was broken. What could I do in Mexico without my family" he said of his decision to break the law and return to Los Angeles, where he owns a house.

Earlier this year the US Congress rejected comprehensive immigration reform allowing many illegal immigrants a path out of the shadows. The government has since ramped up workplace enforcement, netting more than 160 workers in a raid on a poultry plant in Ohio in August.

Once back in the United States, previously deported immigrants often resume their lives. Demetrio waits tables in the same Los Angeles restaurant he previously worked, while Mari is back in her family's home in Phoenix.

Reunited with their spouses and children, many of whom were born in the United States and know no other home, the repeated law breakers weigh their diminishing options in the wake of Arellano's deportation, and as a crackdown announced by the US the Department of Homeland Security gathers pace.