People who unlawfully cross the U.S.-Mexican border into southern Arizona are getting a bus ride – to Texas or California, and sent back to their countries.

The government has been shipping undocumented immigrants caught in Arizona, the main entry point for illegal border crossers, to other border states for several years. Last year, the number of transfers, known as lateral repatriations, skyrocketed.

From Oct. 1, 2010, through July 30, the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector transferred nearly 44,000 undocumented immigrants arrested in Arizona to Texas or California. That is 128 percent more than the number transferred during all of 2010.

"What that does is break up that smuggling cycle so that they are not going to keep coming through kind of a revolving door," said Colleen Agle, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which covers most of Arizona's border with Mexico.

The Arizona Republic reports Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in Nogales on Sunday to tour part of the border on horseback. 

She praised the lateral transfers, calling them part of stepped-up efforts to deter illegal immigration by imposing consequences on illegal border crossers instead of simply returning them to Mexico.

"There are a number of things that all together are acting as deterrents to recidivist crossers in particular," Napolitano said. "All those added together make it less and less appealing to try and cross this very forbidding terrain."

Some humanitarian groups have raised concerns that the transfers separate families.

A September report by the Tucson-based humanitarian group No More Deaths found that based on interviews with more than 12,800 undocumented immigrants deported by the Border Patrol, 869 family members had been removed separately, including 17 children and 41 teens. 

The separations often occurred after the Border Patrol transferred undocumented immigrants to other states so they could be deported through ports far from where they were apprehended, the report said.

Meanwhile, groups opposing Arizona's immigration enforcement law are trying to chip away at a section of the statute that bans the blocking of traffic when people seek or offer day-labor services on streets.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and other opponents asked a federal judge on Friday to block enforcement of the provision. They argue that it unconstitutionally restricts free speech rights and they say the state can't justify a statewide ban based on scattered instances of solicitations creating traffic problems in Phoenix.

The ban was among a handful of provisions in the law that were allowed to take effect after a July 2010 decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked enforcement of the law's more controversial elements.

This is based on a story by The Associated Press.

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