McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Nearly 900 Americans have been evacuated from Central American countries and sent back home on the return leg of deportation flights as the COVID-19 pandemic interrupts international air travel, the Department of Homeland Security said.

From March 22 through Sunday, 853 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents had been flown to the United States “on the return leg of removal flights to Central America” through the “Bringing Americans Home” program, according to a DHS memo sent this week.

The removal flights have gone to Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. At least three of the flights have originated from San Antonio, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials told Border Report on Tuesday.

Homeland Security is working with the U.S. State Department to identify American citizens and legal permanent residents who need help securing a travel flight back to the States during this coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down much air travel, DHS officials said. The measures have resulted in steep cuts to the number of international commercial flights into the United States. The government is also using charter flights.

All those returned on government flights are screened to ensure they don’t have a fever prior to boarding the planes, and they are charged for the ride.

“Passengers will be invoiced for the coach fare cost of the travel,” ICE Public Affairs Specialist Mary Houtmann wrote in an email to Border Report.

The costs are outlined in a 1992 Office of Management and Budget rule that lays out parameters for using government charter flights. Under the regulations, government flights may be used if “no commercial airline or aircraft (including charter) service is reasonably available (i.e., able to meet the traveler’s departure and/or arrival requirements within a 24 hour period, unless the traveler
demonstrates that extraordinary circumstances require a shorter period) to fulfill effectively the agency requirement.”

The regulations stipulate travelers will reimburse the government “the appropriate share of the full
coach fare for any portion of the time on the trip spent on political activities.” However, there is a clause that provides financial leniency for “space-available travel” when it is “by civilian personnel and their dependents in remote locations (i.e., locations not reasonably accessible to regularly scheduled commercial airline service).”

The Trump administration has negotiated deportation agreements with several Central American countries, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. However several countries halted accepting deportees in March as the deadly force of the virus was being realized. Prior to the pandemic, several flights full of Central American deportees left daily from the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport in South Texas.

Read a Border Report story on deportation flights from South Texas.

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