Deportation flights from South Texas halted due to COVID-19 fears


McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — With the coronavirus spreading in the United States, several Central American countries have said they won’t accept deportation flights of migrants from the U.S., at least for the time being.

At the Brownsville South Padre International Airport in South Texas, the daily flights to Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador have come to a halt as leaders of the Central American nations this week told U.S. officials they want to control the spread of the virus in their countries and they fear the migrants would be carriers.

On Thursday, charter flight manifests that are recorded on the app FlightAware showed mostly domestic flights, with a couple from Brownsville to cities in Mexico. For months, deportation flights have taken off en masse from this airport with each plane carrying about 200 people, including 170 migrants plus security officers, federal agents, pilots and charter personnel.

A protester waves at a charter plane full of migrants loaded for a deportation flight bound for Central America from Brownsville South Padre International Airport in South Texas on Feb. 14, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Guatemala became the first nation to suspend deportation flights on Tuesday, followed by El Salvador on Wednesday. Trips to these countries had become a daily occurrence from the Brownsville airport, which placing large trucks on the tarmac to block viewing of the loading of shackled migrants or loaded the planes from areas not visible to the public.

Members of the group Witness at the Border had been frequenting the airport in the pre-dawn hours for weeks, picketing the area with signs and even approaching charter buses full of migrants, which led to a Valentine’s Day confrontation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Read an exclusive Border Report story and video on the Feb. 14 airport confrontation.

But due to coronavirus fears, the group on Sunday disbanded its daily vigils in South Texas, where since Jan. 12 they had set up headquarters across from the Gateway International Bridge.

Joshua Rubin, who heads the group, told Border Report that they didn’t feel it fair to ask volunteers to travel at this time. “We didn’t think we should be asking people to come down because of the traveling risks,” he said.

Read a Border Report story on Witness At The Border leaving South Texas.

Protesters with Witness At The border block charter buses full of migrants on Feb. 14, 2020, who were loaded on charter planes at Brownsville South Padre International Airport and deported to Central American countries. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Rubin was among about 75 protesters who had been watching the daily deportation flights. Waving heart-shaped signs in English and Spanish to tell the migrants they are loved and “We are watching.”

On Monday morning, he said a deportation flight scheduled for Central America was suddenly not filled with migrants who were awaiting in charter buses on the tarmac. “Then the buses suddenly turned around and drove away with the migrants,” Rubin said.

The next day, it was learned that Guatemala was rejecting deportation flights, to which the country had agreed with the Trump administration earlier this year.

DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli on Feb. 25 visited South Texas and touted as “historic agreements” the deportation flights with the three Central American countries where migrants can be sent, “that reduce false claims and relieve stress on our immigration system.”

At the time he vowed that other countries would be soon be added for deportation flights.

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