Report documents ICE flights after COVID-19 spread

After being patted down, deportees in waist and ankle shackles wait to board a "World Atlantic, Zahira" plane departing for San Pedro Sula Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

A report published by organizers with Witness at the Border details the number of 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 during which volunteers witnessed Immigration and Customs Enforcement Air flights and the encampment of approximately 2,500 asylum seekers living on a levee in Matamoros while families await asylum hearings in the tent court system across the river.

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,” their 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 and Swift Air. 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.

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.

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.

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.”

Within 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, 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.