HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Biden administration gave reporters rare access to the tarmac where 132 shackled and chained asylum-seekers boarded a deportation flight from South Texas back to Guatemala early Tuesday morning.

Three busloads of migrants, including 29 women, were driven to a remote back section of the tarmac before 7 a.m. Tuesday at Valley International Airport in the border town of Harlingen. They were removed from the United States under Title 42 expulsion orders, an official told Border Report.

Three busloads totaling 132 migrants were deported back to Guatemala on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, during a morning expulsion flight from Harlingen, Texas, under Title 42 orders, DHS officials said. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The migrants were shackled with chains on their feet and handcuffed and all were patted down and individually searched for about one minute on the tarmac as they slowly disembarked the buses and prepared to walk up 17 steps to the 737 plane operated by Gulf Aviation as part of ICE Air.

This is one of five hubs in the United States operated by Immigration Customs Enforcement’s ICE Air, officials said. The other locations are in Mesa, Arizona; Alexandria, Louisiana, San Antonio and Miami, where migrants are transported on expulsion flights from the United States, an ICE Air official said.

ICE Air recently relocated to the Harlingen airport to run the flights, which had for years operated out of the Brownsville-South Padre International Airport, which is 30 miles southeast of Harlingen, the official said.

Male migrants were patted down while handcuffed and shackled prior to boarding an ICE Air expulsion flight Tuesday, May 17, 2022, to Guatemala from Harlingen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from South Texas who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee, has long suggested that the Biden administration show more migrant expulsion flights to send a message to asylum-seekers to not try to cross the border if they do not have a legitimate reason to remain in the United States.

Cuellar said he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Sunday about highlighting deportation flights for the media and he thought it was a smart move.

“This is a very good move by the administration because you got to show the hundreds of thousands of people who are being returned, the ones that legally are not supposed to be here and you have to show that to help deter because otherwise the only images we see is of people coming in and we don’t see people going out even though they are departing hundreds of thousands of people,” Cuellar told Border Report on Tuesday via phone.

“I hope it’s something they continue to do so the people south of the border can continue seeing images of people being returned,” Cuellar said.

ICE Air security guards pat down shackled migrant women who were part of 132 asylum seekers sent Tuesday morning, May 17, 2022, on an expulsion flight back to Guatemala from Harlingen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
A Homeland Security official monitored media who were allowed on the tarmac before dawn on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, to watch an ICE Air expulsion flight with 132 migrants being deported from Harlingen, Texas, to Guatemala. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Most deportation flights take off in the early morning hours and are dictated by the receiving countries, which each have a deadline schedule for arrivals. In order to meet that deadline, migrants are bused in pre-dawn darkness while the plane is readied.

Cases of bottled water and meals were loaded onto the plane as the buses sat on the tarmac.

Restraining chains were laid on the tarmac and double-checked by contract security personnel prior to the flight.

A DHS worker helps a migrant woman up the stairs onto a Gulf Aviation plane on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, which is operated by ICE Air and was returning the migrants to Guatemala from Harlingen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

All migrants were to remain handcuffed and their feet shackled until an hour prior to the plane landing around noon CDT in Guatemala, an ICE official said.

A flight nurse was on board and all migrants were given a medical screening prior to boarding. All the migrants wore masks and the women’s long hair was picked through.

Agents had the migrants remove their shoes so that they can be checked thoroughly before they were allowed to board the planes.

Most of the migrants wore sweatshirts and dark clothing. Some had trouble walking up the steps and needed assistance.

Workers load luggage and migrants onto a deportation flight Tuesday, May 17, 2022, from Harlingen, Texas. The flight was going to Guatemala carrying 132 migrants. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

A Homeland Security official told Border Report that most of the migrants likely had been arrested overnight or within the past day by U.S. Border Patrol, and they had been held at the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, which is commonly called “Ursula” because of its street name.

Under Title 42, migrants who come illegally into the United States can be immediately expelled back to their country.

The Trump administration in March 2020 enacted Title 42, a public health law, that forbids migrants from crossing from Mexico or Canada into the United States in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus across borders.

The Biden administration on Monday wants to end Title 42 but there are several court challenges brought by Texas and other states that want the order to remain.

Many border officials fear upwards of 18,000 migrants could try to cross into the United States if Title 42 is lifted. But Mayorkas has vowed that if Title 42 is removed, then those who do not qualify to legally remain in the United States will still be sent back under Title 8 expulsion orders.

Mayorkas was visiting South Texas on Tuesday and met with Border Patrol officials in several locations beginning before sunrise. He was scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday afternoon in McAllen.

The migrants on the expulsion flight back to Guatemala will be handed over by a U.S. embassy staffer or other U.S. official and received by a Guatemalan official as part of the “repatriation process,” an ICE Air official said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com