TUCSON, Ariz (Reuters) - An annual program of voluntary repatriation flights to take Mexican illegal immigrants nabbed in the Arizona desert back to their homes in the Mexican interior resumed on Monday, authorities said.
The joint program coordinated by U.S. and Mexican authorities has operated each summer since 2004. It aims to save lives while disrupting Mexican human smuggling networks, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said in a news release.
Last year 249 people perished after crossing into Arizona, according to a tally kept by the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. The most common cause of death is heat exposure in the summer months, when desert temperatures frequently top 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Under the program, Mexicans arrested in the U.S. Border Patrol's Yuma and Tucson sectors are offered the flights after meeting with Mexican consulate officials and receiving a medical check up.
Participants are flown to Mexico City from Tucson International Airport. Once in Mexico, they are taken by bus to their hometowns, ICE said.
Since it began in 2004, more than 102,000 Mexicans have been returned under the program, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with Mexico's Interior and Foreign Ministries.
The first repatriation flight left Tucson on Monday. The flights are scheduled to continue through September 28.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune)