EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with comments from ICE.

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — The migrant advocacy watchdog group Witness at the Border has released an independent report that is critical of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for operating deportation flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report “ICE Air Deportations: Has COVID-19 Changed Anything?” released Friday also found that most chartered expulsion flights this year have originated in South Texas. It cites 55% of all chartered U.S. deportation flights from Jan. 1 to April 30, originated in Texas and 26% flew out of the small Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, which is just a couple of miles from the Mexican border.

The data — which is derived from extrapolations and on-ground observations — is not based on specific information on these charter flights, however, because ICE does not release this information.

An ICE official told Border Report late Friday that “For security purposes, ICE does not comment on flight operations.” The official added: “ICE cannot comment on the validity of this report.”

Joshua Rubin, of Brooklyn, New York, heads the watchdog organization Witness at the Border. He is seen on Jan. 17 outside the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We absolutely do not know the number of people on these deportation flights,” the group’s leader, Joshua Rubin, told Border Report on Friday via phone from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “We have no way of defending or even estimating the numbers except by taking those we have actually seen and taking a guess that that’s the general pattern. We try to be very careful about saying what we know and what we don’t know.”

Rubin said much of their data is based on observations the group made while maintaining a 63-day vigil in South Texas to protest the Department of Homeland Security’s Migrant Protections Protocol program that forces asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico during their immigration court proceedings, which can take many months. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the group in mid-March disbanded from its camp across from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, where they had been since Jan. 12.

Most members, like Rubin, are from New York, and they returned to their home states. But prior to their departure, many had attended early morning sit-ins at the Brownsville Airport where they tried to stop charter buses filled with migrants to be deported on charter flights. They also followed buses that rode into ICE’s Port Isabel Service Processing Center, located about 20 miles away.

Read a Border Report story on the group’s Valentine’s Day protest.

Although they are no longer in South Texas, Rubin said they track flight manifests via the app FlightAware and have paid close attention to charter flights by Swift Air, now iAero Airways, and World Atlantic (Caribbean Sun,) which the report says contracts with the airline broker Classic Air Charters to fly ICE flights.

An iAero aircraft full of deportees takes off from the runway Friday at Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport in Brownsville, Texas. The aircraft was scheduled to land at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana which is the site of an ICE staging facility that holds deportees for up to 72 hours. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

ICE officials say they are following protocols to keep migrants safe during this pandemic, including on deportation flights, and are medically screening all before they board the plane. “The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Air flight medical provider conducts screenings in accordance with Immigration and Health Services Corps (IHSC) guidance. For ICE Air charter removals, there will be a temperature screening at the flight line prior to boarding. Any detainee with an elevated temperature will be denied boarding and referred to a medical provider for further evaluation and observation.

“ICE is testing aliens in custody and prior to removal” for COVID-19, the official said. “ICE acquired more than 2,000 tests per month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to screen aliens in their care and custody. The agency is prioritizing testing based on evolving operational considerations.”

ICE is testing aliens in custody and prior to removal.”

Official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

While ICE has not quantified the number of deportation flights, the agency’s website as of mid-April stated “ICE Air has flown over 1,000 US citizens home amid COVID-19 pandemic.” These were “on the return leg of over a dozen flights to the United States,” the website states.

The agency refers to the department that handles expulsion flights as “ICE Air Operations” and says it is located within the ICE Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). “ERO’s mission is to identify arrest and remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws and our border control efforts,” the agency says.

Regarding the ICE removal flights, the agency writes: “removal operations require complex coordination, management, and facilitation efforts to successfully remove/return aliens from the United States. ERO accomplishes this mission through contract/chartered flights and commercial airlines for escorted and unescorted removals.”

Fran Schindler, 80, blows kisses to an unidentified woman inside a bus full of migrants that were deported on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at the Brownsville South Padre International Airport in South Texas. Schindler opposes deportation flights. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Witness at the Border’s report says expulsion flights should have been halted due to the virus, but cites these flights only dropped by less than 40% since the pandemic began. The report states that ICE Air flew 324 deportation flights from Jan. 1 to April 30, and of those flights, 200 were flown in the “pre/early COVID period” and 124 in the “in-COVID period,” — a reduction of 76, or 38%.

There was also a noticeable drop in flights to Guatemala after the government of Guatemala halted the acceptance of deportees for a time during the pandemic citing concerns that they were bringing the virus to the Central American country.

“It’s almost unthinkable what we’re doing,” Rubin said. “We’re putting them in danger and everybody else in danger that’s involved in it. One has even to feel for the ICE agents and subcontractors who expose themselves and then have to go home to their families. And then think of all the countries that we are sending this to. The United States is the epicenter of COVID in the world and what we’re doing is rounding up people who have been infected in our system and our society and we’re sending them to countries that can barely manage health care now. Imagine when the pandemic starts to come to scale in those countries. Imagine the humanitarian disaster we’re feeding right now.

We’re putting them in danger and everybody else in danger that’s involved in it. One has even to feel for the ICE agents and subcontractors who expose themselves and then have to go home to their families.”

Joshua Rubin, leader of Witness at the Border

The report also states:

  • The four most traveled routes are: Brownsville to Guatemala (41 flights), Brownsville to Honduras (36), El Paso to Guatemala (26), and Phoenix to Guatemala (25). These four routes account for 40% of all flights.
  • Alexandria, Louisiana, had the second-most originating deportation flights at 56, or 17%; Phoenix was third with 39 flights, or 12%, and El Paso was fourth with 35 flights, or 11%.
  • Of the 76 flight reduction from the “pre/early COVID period” to the “in-COVID period,” Texas accounted for 57% of the decrease, or 43 departures. Reductions were primarily in flights to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

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