EXCLUSIVE: Police, protesters clash over Valentine’s Day deportation flights at South Texas airport

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Group has 4 days worth of protests, marches and events planned to protest treatment of asylum-seekers

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — Waving big red hearts for Valentine’s Day and singing “Let my people go,” about 75 protesters clashed with law enforcement at Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport early Friday morning as the group tried to block buses filled with migrants bound for deportation charter flights.

Only Border Report was there in the pre-dawn darkness, as members of the grassroots group Witness at the Border breached a paved parking lot area where four charter buses were idling filled with the migrants, some of whom could be seen handcuffed through the dark windows.

The protest kicked off four days of protests, marches and special events the group has planned for this long President’s Day holiday weekend. Group organizers said they expect to draw hundreds of people from all across the nation to South Texas to show opposition to the treatment of asylum-seekers who must remain in Mexico just across the Rio Grande.

Holding hearts for Valentine’s Day, about 75 protesters tried to block four buses before dawn on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at the Brownsville South Padre International Airport full of migrants bound for deportation flights. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Before the sun came up on Friday, the protesters waved hearts and signs reading, “This is plane wrong” and “have a heart.” They chanted in English and Spanish, “Love, not hate,” “Amor, no odio,” and “No estan solos” (You are not alone). Some protesters became overcome with emotion and were crying as they waved to the migrants on the buses.

“I could see the woman inside the bus and she could see me and I was throwing kisses and she threw kisses back, so I know that she could see that we were there,” cried Fran Schindler, 80, as she wiped tears on the sleeve of her jacket from outside the bus.

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)

“They were lifting up their shackles and sowing them to us while we were standing there so we knew what kind of situation they were in,” Camilo Perez Bustillo, an immigration lawyer who came from Mexico City said as he galvanized the protesters to stand strong, yet remain peaceful.

But within 15 minutes, the protesters were surrounded by Brownsville Police Department officers and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, nine in total.

A police officer told the group’s organizers that if they didn’t move “they would be arrested.” Another told Border Report that the area “is private property” belonging to ICE.

Several police officers told them to move, to which lead organizer Joshua Rubin replied, “show us who you are.” One plain-clothed agent pulled out a badge identifying himself as an ICE agent.

“Everybody who is in the way is going to get arrested. Who’s going to get arrested?” a police officer told the group. “For blocking a passageway and for being on private property. Clear the way.”

As the buses started to pull out of the lot, Rubin and Perez Bustillo called for members to “bring the banner” and they stood in the path of the bus. At least nine agents converged on the crowd and pushed them back and the buses passed through.

A few minutes later, the buses were driven behind a barbed-wire fence onto the airport tarmac where they sat for over three hours before the detainees were loaded onto two different Swift Air charter flights — one bound for Alexandria, La. Since Wednesday, that same plane has already flown from Brownsville to Guatemala City via various U.S. stops, including Alexandria and Phoenix. The other plane, bound for Miami on Friday, has flown to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, four times since Feb. 5.

Neither flight was listed on the FlightAware app, which track charter flights, until just moments before they took off. The charter flights are paid with federal dollars and each has ICE agents, as well as several security guards on board, those familiar with the flights have told Border Report.

Many of the protesters said they viewed the lack of flight information as the federal government trying to hide something.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can to show the government they cannot do things and keep them secret from the United States citizens and residents. That we are watching everything they do. That we are protesting. We are spreading the word to our communities and to our legislators,” said Alice Levine, who came from western Massachusetts with a grassroots group called Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice.

“We are literally witnessing people being deported and that is upsetting,” said Joan Epstein, also from Massachusetts.

“In the dark of the night when there aren’t a lot of people around, so we’re here to make sure there are some people around,” added Carolyn Oppenheim of North Hampton, Mass.

“We’re trying to say, ‘love, not hate,’ on Valentine’s Day,” said Holly Bishop.

Rubin said it was important to send a message of love to those shackled on board the buses and planes. “We can’t live with it the way it is, that’s for sure. We have to do something. We can’t sit and watch this. If anyone saw the flights of people flying to their deaths …” he said.

Cat Yuracka, of New York, was part of a group of pre-dawn protesters at the Brownsville South Padre International Airport on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 who were opposing deportation flights of asylum-seekers. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We are an army of gray hairs trying to utilize every ounce of information and energy we have to stop this,” said Cat Yuracka, 65, of New York, who said she protested with Rubin in Tornillo, in West Texas, to shut down a migrant detention facility there, as well as in Homestead, Fla.

“This is clearly a flagrant human rights violation, it’s a violation of international law because we’re having people sent back who are facing danger in their home countries who are entitled to international protection,” said Perez Bustillo, a human rights lawyer and Stanford University researcher who also protested in Tornillo and Homestead.

Rubin, who is from the Bronx, N.Y., and members of Witness at the Border have been holding a daily vigil in Brownsville across from the Gateway International Bridge since Jan. 12. Rubin says they will be there until every last asylum-seeker from the migrant refugee camp across the river in Matamoros, Mexico, is released.

Read a Border Report story on Witness on the Border’s daily protests.

However, after President Donald Trump on Thursday announced he would extend his 2019 national emergency declaration on the southern border “to deal with the border security and humanitarian crisis,” and his administration announced it was shifting $3.8 billion from Pentagon funds to border-wall construction, Rubin said he was not very optimistic that his randy group of protesters was going to make much difference.

“I am not at all confident,” Rubin said. “But what we have to do is do what’s right. If we can get him to change. We must do everything we can to try.”

The group, which has a Facebook page, plans several events and activities during this four-day holiday weekend, including:

  • 7 p.m. Friday: Screening of a film “Witness at Tornillo” from atop the Greyhound Bus Station roof in Brownsville, Texas.
  • Noon Saturday: Rally at Xeriscape Park in Brownsville, Texas, across from the Gateway International Bridge.
  • 1 p.m. Saturday: March a mile from Xeriscape Park to Hope Park, where speeches will be made.
  • 7 p.m. Saturday: Artistic light event at Xeriscape Park.
  • Noon Sunday: Memorial for those who died in immigration custody at Xeriscape Park.
  • All day Monday: Open mic political speeches by various candidates running for U.S. Senate seat for Texas, statewide offices and a few local elected officials.
  • All times are CDT.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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