This article was published in The Brownsville Herald on Feb. 15, 2020. All photos by Denise Cathey.
As the sun rose over the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport on Valentine’s Day, a group of men and women bundled up against the cold surrounded what looked like several out of service city buses parked in front of the Hunt Pan Am terminal.
Nearly 30 demonstrators with Witness at the Border held handmade signs and paper hearts, watching through the vehicles’ barred windows, blocking the buses from leaving the parking lot as deportees responded from inside.
Organizers have been watching flights leave the Brownsville airport early in the morning for several weeks. Joshua Rubin, the movement’s founder, said in a Facebook post this month that he suspects the flights to Guatemala and Honduras mark the ramp up of the Trump administration’s Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) program.
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced it was suing the federal government challenging the new expedited asylum process alongside a similar program for Mexican asylum seekers called the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP).
In a statement, the organization argued that the programs bar migrants from accessing phones and attorneys while they’re held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing centers during credible fear interviews.
Bilateral “safe third-country” agreements signed with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras send those who passed through a third country and did not first seek asylum there back to dangerous conditions in the Northern Triangle.
A report published by Human Rights Watch last week stated that between 2013 and 2019, 138 people were killed after deportation from the United States to El Salvador. Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco said last week that the country is not ready to accept asylum seekers until it can offer them the necessary protections and support.
The group of participants in Friday’s action were forced away from the vehicles by local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers not long after they surrounded the buses. Just before 7:00 a.m., several Brownsville Police Department vehicles sat in Hunt Pan Am’s parking lot.
“It was an amazing, intimate moment because as I looked into the window, I saw a young man hold up his arms to show us the shackles. I blew him a kiss. I didn’t even think about it. And he blew kisses with his shackles,” said demonstrator Cindy Voyum, who traveled to Brownsville to witness the government’s handling of asylum cases under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ program).
“I went to a women’s bus. Other people held up hearts, sending love. Several women inside the bus just broke down, sobbing. It was a really beautiful moment. Because at least they know that they’re not alone. Even if it was just for a minute,” she said as the crowd kept watch on the buses, barely visible from behind a warehouse.
“Los queremos” – “We love you” – they shouted in unison at the barred windows.
Over the course of the following two hours, law enforcement and airport workers wearing badges labeled “Transport Security Officer” maneuvered vehicles, buses, baggage carts, and even Hunt Pan Am’s Phillips 66 fuel truck – to block demonstrators and the press from seeing deportees loaded onto the aircraft. The security officers’ badges were labeled “Trailboss”, also the name of the company marking the sides of the buses.
Organizers with Witness had been tracking the flights via an online app. The first, operated by Ascent was scheduled to depart at 10:32 a.m. to Alexandria, Louisiana.
Alexandria’s airport is the site of an ICE staging facility that holds deportees for up to 72 hours. The facility is operated by GEO Group, Inc – a private, for-profit prison contractor that operates “special-purpose, state-of-the-art residential centers”, according to the company’s website.
A series of lawsuits filed since 2014 on the behalf of detainees accused the company and its competitor CoreCivic of coercing detained undocumented immigrants to work for free, or in some cases, paying detainees $1/day and threatening retaliation if they refused, according to multiple reports on the lawsuits.
In Brownsville, demonstrators were blocked from filming officials unloading shackles from the belly of the aircraft and laying them on the tarmac below. Officials parked a Hunt Pan Am-operated handicap bus just in front of a gap in the fence.
The company also closed the inner windows of its hangar, blocking the aircraft from view. An unmarked police vehicle did the same along another stretch of fence. Another unmarked law enforcement vehicle drove by slowly, black-tinted windows rolled down, filming the crowd along the fence no less than 15 feet away.
Two pick-up trucks marked City of Brownsville were also used to obscure the deportations. A female employee and the vehicle’s driver parked in front of the demonstrators, photographing the group and the press on her cell phone.
Protesters watched men and women in handcuffs and belly chains as they were patted down and loaded onto the aircraft. Private security searched through trash bags on the tarmac filled with smaller, standard-issued bags made of red mesh – likely the deportees’ belongings.
Demonstrator Thomas Cartwright noted that the deportees were shackled at the ankles, as he photographed them on his cell phone stumbling up the steps to board the aircraft.
“I saw children on the bus,” said Betty Linne Wolfson, who arrived in Brownsville this week from Massachusetts with a group called Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice.
Her fellow organizer Shel Harowitz said he sat in Xeriscape Park yesterday only to witness a 24-year-old Honduran asylum seeker named Jose exit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint, having been granted asylum. “He was very emotional when he saw the witnesses out there with the ‘stop MPP’ signs,” he said.
“It certainly made a difference for that person that people were there.”
Kelly Stone, a candidate for Texas Railroad Commissioner, said that demonstrators positioned at another point along the tarmac looked up to see a group of construction workers holding a piece of sheet rock reading “Los queremos”.
At half past ten, the aircraft finally left the ground. Deportees were shackled the entire time. A caravan of security and law enforcement vehicles escorted the three empty buses off the tarmac, red and blue lights flashing.
A second aircraft marked “World Atlantic, Zahira” arrived. Officials quickly loaded several deportees from a bus and a white van and onto the aircraft. An app showed that the flight, which was previously unscheduled, was departing for San Pedro Sula.
Two transportation security officers photographed reporters from behind a bus. A man in a long, wool coat carrying a pot of coffee and a bag of food boarded the plane carrying what appeared to be ICE documents, which were photographed in his hands.
As demonstrators left, an unmarked law enforcement pick-up truck drove slowly through the Hunt Pan Am parking lot past a group of reporters.
“For operational security reasons, ICE does not provide advance notification of its deportations schedules,” said ICE spokeswoman Adelina Pruenda, asked whether the agency could confirm if the deportees were asylum seekers.