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SALT LAKE CITY -- As the debate rages over illegal immigrants, the federal government is quietly escalating its effort to get rid of them. They're now being deported in record numbers.
It's an extraordinary forced exodus: about 400,000 deportations in the last year. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) says it's getting more tightly focused. About half the removals now are criminal aliens, but critics say it's ripping innocent families apart.
In 2009, 393,000 foreign nationals were removed from the U.S. The leading countries of origin were Mexico (72%), Guatemala (7%) and Honduras (7%).
Recently KSL News flew with several of these so-called criminal aliens as they were deported back to Mexico. The flight from Salt Lake City is a frequent one.
"We do this once a week. Right now we're averaging about 50 to 60 detainees a week," said Thomas Feeley, deputy director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations.
At the ICE field office in Murray, the passengers arrived from various jails for pre-flight processing.
"Most people on board the aircraft today are what we refer to as ‘criminal aliens,'" Feeley said.
Family members dropped off luggage for loved ones.
"He was actually just working and they got him at work," said Gabby Moreno, whose husband is being deported.
No tickets or boarding passes here -- it's handcuffs, fingerprints and deportation documents. Pre-flight security checks are beyond thorough.
ICE agents had to take down one combative passenger and carry him out; he still made the flight.
Baggage is limited to 40 pounds apiece. 'Carry-on' is whatever cash each passenger or his or her family can scrape up.
"It hurts a lot that I can't be here with my wife, because our life is here in the United States," said deportee Alberto Perez.
"I'm scared," his wife, Kendra, said through her tears.
Kendra and Alberto's sister, Viviana Perez, waited for a brief glimpse as he headed to the airport.
"I think it's very wrong for them to do this over a misdemeanor," Kendra said.
But ICE officials say nobody gets to this point unless they've made a big mistake separate from their illegal alien status.
"Many times they've been convicted of a criminal offense here in Utah -- either DWIs, aggravated assault, whatever the case may be," Feeley said.
Alberto Perez has been in the United States illegally since about age 5. He admits to a drug offense a few years ago and a DUI two years ago.
"There's nothing I can do about it. I did wrong, so I want to pay my crime for what I did," he said.
Alberto claims to be straight now. He has a wife and child and says he is working on a ranch in Idaho.
"He's not a lazy man. He works hard every day for his family, and I guess that's not good enough," Viviana Perez said.
"Nobody wants to see tears or people upset. However, these individuals made those choices. This is the result," Feeley said.
"He didn't kill no one," Viviana continued. "He's not a raper. He's not a serious criminal."
Immigration attorney Aaron Tarin says hundreds of his clients have been deported for minor offenses.
ICE Removals and Returns FY08-FY10 in Salt Lake City
"You really have to weigh … somebody who has a traffic citation on their record, is it really beneficial to society to deport that person and leave their children and their wife here to live off welfare and not have a father?" Tarin said.
He says many could win legal status, but they sign away their rights. They can't afford a lawyer, and the deportation process is slow and intimidating.
"And if they can't get out of jail, most of these people, what they do, regardless of the fact that they might qualify for a green card or they might be U.S. citizens, they simply throw in the towel," Tarin said.
"Everybody on board this aircraft, at a minimum, has seen an immigration judge," Feeley said.
Kendra Perez plans to rejoin Alberto in Mexico with their son.
"My country doesn't want my husband here, so I don't need my country," Kendra said.
ICE officials say they're confident they're doing the right thing.
"We live here too. We have a vested interest in keeping Utah safe," Feeley said.
Wednesday night on KSL 5 News at 10, we'll take you aboard that plane, which ultimately carried 130 people in handcuffs and chains to the Mexican border. You'll hear the dreams and fears of the deportees as they walk the bridge across the Rio Grande.