"Everybody wants to stay, nobody wants to leave." Channel 4 News gains exclusive access to US border police and travels with illegal immigrants deported "back home" to Guatemala.
In the heat and humidity of a Texan morning a plane idles on the tarmac. This is an airline few will have heard of, but the tickets and meals are free for those flying today.
We can see the silhouettes of guards clutching shotguns along the perimeter fence and officers with bullet proof jackets stand waiting for the passengers. From nowhere three prison buses slowly drive towards the plane and stop just a few meters short.
We’re boarding ICE Air – run by the US government to send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants back home in the hope that they will stay there.
And as the heat rises on the issue of illegal immigration, Channel 4 News has been given exclusive access to the way the United States deals with its illegal immigrants.
For one week we see for ourselves the stress and strain on an overworked system and the often futile efforts to deport illegal immigrants many of whom come straight back over the border.
US immigration ‘must be overhauled’
– Doris Meissner, US immigration expert, writes for Channel 4 News
"Flights have increased by 77 per cent since 2006," says Michael Pitts, field director of the Texas office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "This year we will deport 400,000 illegal aliens in this way."
Mr Pitts appears proud of this service but he knows the Obama administration is watching very closely not least because these flights cost the taxpayer nearly £300m per year and illegal re-entries are growing commonplace.
"For many this is the first time any of these guys have been on a plane and you can see the relief on their faces as they begin the descent into their own country. This is what we are doing. Taking them back home."
But the men and women we see on this flight, bound for Guatemala, look anything but relieved. Their heads hang low and they trudge up the steps to the aircraft wearing only the standard issue jeans and white T-shirt given to them by the authorities. For them, this is the end of their American dream.
Cycle of deportation
We meet 18-year-old Otis, who paid $5,000 to be smuggled over the border into the US five years ago, says his wife and three children have been left behind in Phoenix, Arizona.
"All I have done is want more for my family. I have committed no criminal acts, I just work and look after my family. My children have been born in the US. Now I am heading back to a country which is unknown to me."
And he says he will not stay in Guatemala for long.
"How can I stay," he asks. "I will work for my father and earn enough to make my way back to Mexico and across the border to see my family."
And this is the perennial problem for US immigration officials. The never ending cycle of deporting illegal immigrants only then to discover that they have come over the border and re-entered.
We travel to San Antonio, Texas with ICE special agents. A dawn raid in a quiet suburb of pastel colour timber frame houses and neat green lawns.
"This guy is an air-conditioning engineer and we’re waiting for him to come out so we can get the cuffs on," says Adrian Ramirez, a special agent with ICE. We wait for an hour before a voice over the radio says: "Lets call him up, get him to fix something."
So they do. They ring his office and request him specifically. Ten minutes later the man emerges from his house and we’re off.
"Police, ICE, stay where you are!," says one agent. "You make this deal easy for us and we’ll get on with our jobs." The man doesn’t look surprised.
Agent Ramirez tells me: "The problem here is that this isn’t the first time our guys have arrested this man.
"He was deported last year but we got word he’s come back."
When it comes to illegal immigrants the US doesn’t discriminate. More than 60 per cent are non criminal who fail to enter the country legally.
With one eye on the November mid term elections President Obama is keen to keep the Hispanic communities onside. Which is why the government put so much effort into blocking a controversial law in Arizona last week which would have given police powers to stop and search anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant.
And now the president wants the immigration system to ease up on non criminal and concentrated efforts on deporting the hard core murderer, rapist and gang member.
He wants to offer some what he calls a "pathway to citizenship" to bring the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows". But for the moment, no all illegals head to the same place – the detention centre.
We head south, to the Gulf Coast and Los Fresnos on the border with Mexico.
As we drive slowly through the razor wire gates of the Port Isabel Detention Centre – the biggest of its kind in the United States – we catch a glimpse of the detainees. Red, orange and blue boiler suits scattered across the grounds of this former world war two airbase. Guards on towers point their rifles downwards.
"This is not a prison," says Mike Watkins, assistant field director at Port Isabel. "This is a detention centre."
This is the first time anyone has been allowed to film inside and we’re about to see the US immigration system in its most raw, chaotic state.
Detainees should spend an average of 18 days here but the men we speak to have been here far longer – mainly because they are fighting their deportation.
"I have been here for 16 going on 17 months," says Patrick originally from the Congo but who has lived in New York for 28 years. He serves the meals to the other detainees for $2 a day.
"This place is no deterrent, everybody wants to stay in the US and nobody wants to leave. It’s common talk for people to say that they’ll head straight back over."
For the men who do leave that day, it’s a prison bus to the border and then release. We’re locked inside with 15 illegal immigrants. Many of them have tattoos all over their bodies – some well known tags of ruthless gangs.
"Once you get used to burgers and fries, it’s very hard to go back," says one man. He tucks his dollars into his sock and tells me he’s going to have a shower and head straight back over the border.
Watch Nick Martin’s full report on Channel 4 News at 7pm. Follow Nick Martin on Twitter @C4NickMartin.
US immigration system must be ‘overhauled’
Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute writes for Channel 4 News on the current state of US Immigration.
Tightening border controls and increased deportations have been the only answers to the problems of illegal immigration that have been possible in recent years because Congress has failed to enact broader immigration reform measures, while continuing to allocate increased resources to enforcement.
Such enforcement is essential, but absent broader reforms, enforcement-only will continue to fail to solve the overall problem.
Today, the US borders are more secure than ever – so those here illegally stay because re-entry is perilous.
Other similar perverse consequences will continue until the underlying causes of illegal immigration diminish. Simply put, US immigration laws provide insufficient legal avenues to enter the United States for employment purposes at levels that our economy demands.
Even in this recession, more jobs are filled at high rates by immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, than our outdated visa allocations can accommodate.
Congress has refused to deal with this reality for decades. Calls for increased enforcement may have political appeal, but they are unworkable without a simultaneous federal overhaul of our immigration laws that includes effective enforcement, legal immigration reform and legalization for unauthorized immigrants.
We need new laws and policies to make it possible for immigration to continue to serve important national interests today and in the future.