(Reuters) - Immigration officials on Tuesday flew 131 deportees to Mexico City in the maiden flight of a new program to send illegal immigrants to the interior of Mexico, rather than border towns where they are more likely to be exposed to criminals.
The two-month project is a collaborative effort between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Mexican Ministry of the Interior, and is geared toward immigrants who come from the interior regions of Mexico.
In the past, many Mexican nationals deported from the United States have ended up in northern border towns, despite having no ties to the region. Deportees placed there have often sought to re-enter the United States illegally, or have fallen prey to criminal organizations, federal officials say.
"This initiative will better ensure that individuals repatriated to Mexico are removed in circumstances that are safe and controlled," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement.
The first flight with 131 Mexican nationals aboard took off on Tuesday from El Paso, Texas, bound for Mexico City, ICE said in a statement.
Once the deportees arrive in the Mexican capital, officials there are tasked with arranging bus transport to their home towns, ICE said.
The pilot program will continue until November 29, when officials will evaluate the results to determine how it might be applied in the future, said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for ICE.
Some of the Mexican nationals deported under the pilot program have criminal histories, and they have been living in all parts of the United States, Navas said.
U.S. immigration authorities deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants every year.
The new initiative builds on another program last used during the summer of 2011, Navas said. Under that program, illegal immigrants picked up in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, which is a key pathway for many migrants first setting foot on U.S. soil, were also sent back to the interior of Mexico rather than to border towns.
But unlike that program, which was voluntary, the new initiative to fly deportees to Mexico City includes migrants who did not choose that destination. It is not open to deportees who originally came from the northern states of Mexico, Navas said.
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Edith Honan and Sandra Maler)