Just after dawn, Gerardo Lopez Arellano shuffles along in a line of 51 other shackled men on an isolated tarmac where a white, unmarked federal jet is waiting to take them to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The 24-year-old construction worker who grew up near the Texas border was deported twice before this year, but he is indifferent on this cool morning at O'Hare International Airport.
"I'll probably be back," he told The Associated Press.
Arellano is one of nearly 11,200 illegal immigrants deported this year through Chicago, the location of a field office for the Midwest region covered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. By contrast, in 2004 about 6,600 people were deported from the region that includes Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Nationwide, deportations have also increased, with nearly 350,000 immigrants sent home through September 2008, compared with about 174,000 in the same period in 2004.
The trend is expected to continue. But experts and immigration officials aren't certain whether deportations — which affect less than 3 percent of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. this year — are an effective means of controlling that population.
ICE's count also does not specify how many people, like Arellano, have been repeatedly deported.
Most deported from Midwest are Mexican
The majority of those deported in the six-state Midwest area are from Mexico. More than half, about 6,800, have not been accused of crimes.
Not so for Arellano, who at age 12 joined the street gang "La Raza" ("The Race"), a term used to describe his fellow countrymen. He has a criminal record, one he says is mostly the result of drunken fights. He was charged with battery in 2006 and convicted of armed robbery last year, factors which likely will keep him from gaining U.S. citizenship.
Arellano was born while his mother visited Mexico, but has several siblings who are U.S. citizens. His father died in 1993.
"I was supposed to be born in Texas, but I came out earlier," he said. "I haven't got any family in Mexico."
That makes no difference to ICE, which since its creation in 2003 has touted its enforcement of immigration laws and the aggressive tactics agents use. For example, the agency — with a budget of $5.58 billion this fiscal year — has arrested tens of thousands in its Fugitive Operations Program, which dismantles transnational gangs.
Whether the increased deportations are effective in preventing people from sneaking in or staying in the country illegally is still being assessed. ICE officials say it will take years to know for sure.
Couldn't find work in Mexico
For Arellano, the choice was simple.
After his second deportation in October 2006, he had tried to settle in Mexico, but jobs were scarce and he didn't have family support. He knew it would be easy to find work using fake documents in Chicago's suburbs.
"I wasn't planning to come back," he said. "I was trying to find a job down there and live peacefully."
Finding work is the reason most cross the border, according to James Ziglar, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner.
He said the increased deportations is due in part to the failure of new comprehensive immigration reform.
"If people want to come, there's a job. They need a job and they can't get here legally because the system doesn't accommodate a real flow of people, then they're going to come and take the chance," he said. "The risk of getting caught is a risk that they take."
Luis Armando Jimenez-Gonzalez, a 20-year-old who immigrated illegally to be with his U.S. citizen fiancee, it was worth the risk. He paid a smuggler to help him cross the border.
"I came here to work, to have a better chance," he said.
Jimenez-Gonzalez, who also has a criminal record with a 2007 burglary conviction, worked in construction around Chicago. He was deported on the same flight as Arellano, but planned to stay with family in Mexico.
"It causes a lot of pain to come here," he said.
Some families torn apart
Some immigrant rights advocates say the increased deportation tears apart families who have mixed immigration status.
On the day of their deportations, Arellano and Jimenez-Gonzalez arrived at a suburban processing center with the other men, were handcuffed and interviewed by the Mexican Consulate, which also gave them a $20 bill to start life again in Mexico. Their belongings were placed in clear plastic bags, some filled with clothes, cowboy boots and socks. Another was packed with Bibles.
The mood oscillated between somber and celebratory.
On the bus to O'Hare and their flight home, several men spontaneously started singing a popular Mexican folk song: "Mexico lindo y querido/Si muero lejos de ti/Que digan que estoy dormido y que me traigan aqui."
"Mexico, dear and beautiful/If I die far from you/Let them say that I'm asleep and return me to you."