Witness At The Border Tracks ICE Air Deportation Flights Leaving the Rio Grande Valley

A report published by organizers with Witness at the Border details the number of ICE Air flights that left the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport during the first several months of the year in an effort to document who was being deported and to where – both before and after the spread of COVID-19.

The vigil spent 62 days pre-pandemic in Brownsville, Texas during which volunteers witnessed both ICE Air flights and the encampment of approximately 2,500 asylum seekers living on a levee in Matamoros, Tamaulipas awaiting asylum hearings in the tent court system across the river. Volunteers spent each day camped in front of the Gateway International Bridge. In the group’s analysis, organizers described the movement’s primary objective as “to witness, document, and publicize the annihilation of asylum resulting from the MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols), metering, PACR, HARP, and Asylum Cooperation Agreement (ACA) policies” implemented along the U.S./Mexico border in the years following the 2016 election.

The flight tracking team consisted of organizers Karla Rader Barber, who led the initiative, alongside Witness founder Joshua Rubin, organizer Julie Swift, and global refugee advocate Thomas Cartwright. “The pandemic rages and ICE Air continues to shuttle detainees between detention centers and place them on deportation flights without regard for the safety of their passengers, employees or contractors,” the report concluded.

Organizers found that ICE Air flights are contracted with the airline broker Classic Air Charters. Those flights are then subcontracted to World Atlantic (Caribbean Sun) and Swift Air (iAero Airways). Specified is that the contract between ICE and Classic Air Charters is not public, and the last flight documented by the group operated by World was on March 28.

ICE doesn’t publish specific information on the chartered flights, so the numbers are derived from on-the-ground observations and extrapolation, as well as close monitoring on the app Flight Aware. The group specified it does not know how many people are on each flight and that there’s no way to verify the data, though organizers have placed huge emphasis on what they can reasonably conclude and what they cannot. It’s impossible for Witness to tell whether flights landing in border cities contain Mexican deportees, or to track the number of land-based deportations and expulsions in which flights land in border cities. This practice has been witnessed in Brownsville, where deportees are transported to the Gateway International Bridge and walk to Mexico for repatriation.

Aid workers in Matamoros last month reported buses full of deportees arriving from across the bridge, as well as some asylum seekers self-deporting, leaving to Tapachula, Chiapas, from Repatriación Humana multiple times a day.

Year to date numbers collected by the group through April 30 show an estimated 324 ICE Air deportation flights completed in the first four months of 2020. Out of those flights, 179, or 55% of the flights departed Texas, with 83, or 26%, from Brownsville alone, according to the report.

Analyzed data led organizers to suspect that the number of flights within the U.S. detention center system “may be a factor of 2 to 3x the deportation related flights presented here.”

“That said, we know from how the pandemic spreads that you do not need a plane load of infected people to seed and spread COVID. A few people carrying the virus can spread it quickly and devastatingly.”

The number of detainees in ICE detention has dropped by approximately 9,600, representing a 25% decrease from the end of February as deportations and rapid expulsions under the CDC Order (Title 42) reached over 20,000 though April, according to the report’s analysis.

“Book ins were around 22k in both January and February. They fell to 8.5k in April, a reduction of 13.5k, or 60%. If flights were reduced because of a lower population for removal at 12.5%, rather than the full 25%, that would be roughly 25 flights”.

Of the 324 total flights, Swift Air operated 250, while World Atlantic completed 74. The report organized flight information into two periods – the first, from Jan. 31 to March 1, is marked “Pre/Early COVID”. A second span, referred to as “In-COVID”, documented flights from March 4 to April 30. “The phase out of World is obvious. During the In-COVID period, World operated only 12 flights, or 10% of the flights. They have operated no ICE Air flights since March 28. Swift operated almost the same number of flights with Pre/Early COVID at 114 and In-COVID at 112.”

According to organizers, the suspension of the Mexico Repatriation Agreement concurrent with the CDC order returned Mexican nationals by plane to Guadelajara, accounting for eight flights. Guatemala suspended flights three times for around three and-a-half weeks after they received COVID-infected deportees, which organizers estimated accounted for 17 flights, reduced from 35 so as to avoid potential overlap in the data. 

Of the flights completed before April 30, 200 were flown pre-COVID and 124 during COVID – a reduction of 76. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador comprised 81% (162 flights) in the pre-virus period. The busiest departure point was Brownsville, with a total of 83 flights leaving the airport across the entire documented timespan, data showed. “The four most traveled routes through April are Brownsville to Guatemala (41), Brownsville to Honduras (36), El Paso to Guatemala (26), and Phoenix to Guatemala (25),” wrote organizers, adding that the routes account for 40% of all deportation flights.

The report documented flights leaving to Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, and Nicaragua. The analysis cited reports showing that “24, 3, and 1 infected persons have been deported to Colombia, Haiti, and Jamaica, respectively.”

Written analysis referenced a letter signed by 164 humanitarian organizations in late April petitioning ICE to stop deportation flights to Haiti. “It was reported to have only 20 working ventilators and 124 ICU beds for 11 million people. How did ICE respond, just days later ICE Air deported 125 people, including 49 children to Haiti,” organizers found.

“Some countries, primarily Honduras and El Salvador, continue to accept repatriations to curry favor with the administration from things such as promises of ventilators and the restart of aid. It would be folly to think that the deportees on the 87 flights to Honduras and El Salvador in 2020 have no seeded and spread the virus in those countries.”

More information can be found on Witness at the Border’s website.

Photo by Denise Cathey for The Brownsville Herald