Guillermo Campos Ojeda Stares Blankly at the Clouds from the Jetliner's Window,

Article excerpt

Byline: Sophia Tareen Associated Press

Guillermo Campos Ojeda stares blankly at the clouds from the jetliner's window, mentally retracing the 22 years that he lived in the United States as an illegal immigrant.

His odyssey began in 1988 with an illegal border crossing and ended in May when he was pulled over for driving without a license. In between were double shifts at a Chicago factory, a string of run-ins with the law, a marriage and his ultimate joy: the birth of his daughter, now 2, who is a U.S. citizen.

But on this flight arranged by the federal government, his journey takes a new turn: Ojeda is being deported along with 52 other illegal immigrants.

Their day starts at a suburban processing center and ends with a lonely walk across a bridge from Brownsville, Texas, into Mexico.

"For 10 years, I worked two jobs. I didn't ask the government for anything, not welfare, nothing," he said in Spanish, awkwardly wiping away tears with the backs of his hands, which are shackled like those of all the passengers. "I'm not perfect, but there are consequences, and I have to pay."

Flights like this one leave from some 40 U.S. cities, sometimes on a daily basis. In the past year, more than 350,000 illegal immigrants have been deported -- about 220,000 by plane. The number of immigrants sent back to their homelands has more than tripled in the past decade and is expected to continue soaring.

An Associated Press reporter was permitted to go on a recent flight, obtaining a rare glimpse into the emotional final hours of illegal immigrants who are leaving their American lives for uncertain futures in Mexico.

Goodbyes

The day starts before sunrise for each of the 53 deportees brought from area prisons to a U.S.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Broadview.

In large holding cells, many of the immigrants wait wrapped in scratchy brown blankets as Mexican consulate officials review their papers and give each $20 to use on the other side of the border.

Ojeda says goodbye to his wife and child over a phone in a room where glass separates visitors. Speaking into the telephone, he looks intently at his wife and baby girl. Nearby a sign reads, "No touching allowed."

Most of those aboard the flight came to authorities' attention after being convicted of a crime in the U.S. One was convicted of murder, 16 for assault, 11 for driving under the influence, nine for drug charges and six for theft. Another six had no criminal background.

By 9 a.m., they are lined up, searched and shackled -- no matter the crime. The sound of chains and handcuffs echoes down the hallway.

"I'll be on my way back, man!" a man yells at a guard as he's being cuffed.

Among the group is 24-year-old Alberto Ortiz Hernandez, who came to the U.S. as a teenager, speaks better English than Spanish and has a wife who is a U.S. citizen.

The baby-faced resident of Appleton, Wis., missed an important 2009 hearing in his immigration case and was immediately ordered deported. Hernandez didn't leave; he lived as covertly as possible until he was picked up in March for driving without a license.

He has a shot at coming back to the U.S. legally but will have to wait for several years in Mexico City with his mother and two sisters.

"I want to do the right thing," he says.

His wife, Farrah Hernandez, who's expecting a child, worries about paying bills without her husband's income.

"If he comes back the wrong way, he'll never be able to apply for residency," she said in a phone interview. "The only thing you can do is wait."

'I can't complain'

At a quiet terminal away from the hustle of the nation's second-busiest airport, deportation flights leave O'Hare International Airport twice a week. They are chartered either by ICE or the U.S. Marshals Service.

As passengers are patted down and searched, security officers lay out the immigrants' bags on the tarmac, each one marked with a mug shot. …