ICE is using its deportation fleet to evacuate Americans stranded abroad

BORDER/LINES spoke to a group of American teachers who say they were airlifted out of Honduras on a plane that had carried deportees just hours earlier.

On Sunday afternoon, a group of U.S. citizens and residents boarded a plane at the Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. They were finally bound for the United States after many had spent days trying to find any way out of the country, which had sealed its borders and forced the cancellation of many commercial flights in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The group was told that the plane they were going to board was some kind of U.S. military or government plane being used for evacuations. But it clearly wasn’t a military plane. It was a commercial Boeing 737-800 jetliner bearing the logo of Swift Air, a small charter airline now known as iAero Airways. Unbeknownst to the group, it was actually operated by a different part of the government: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as part of its ICE Air fleet of planes contracted for use in deportations.

Two people who were on that flight told the BORDER/LINES that a U.S. embassy official coordinating their departures admitted that the plane had arrived loaded with deportees. Flight records show that the same plane left Alexandria, Louisiana — a known ICE Air hub — early on Sunday morning, stopped in Houston, and landed in San Pedro Sula at around noon. Local press reports confirm that a flight loaded with 92 Honduran deportees arrived at that same airport at that same time.

The deportation flights occurred just days after Reuters reported that Honduras had closed its airports to international traffic, including deportation flights from the U.S. On March 15, the Honduran government announced it was closing its borders — air, land, and sea — for seven days in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. But BORDER/LINES was able to confirm that the country continued accepting deportees from the US despite the border closure, even Hondurans struggled to return home and foreigners were trapped there.

In recent weeks, the plane that carried the Students Helping Honduras group flew to and from ICE Air operations hubs in Alexandria; Brownsville, Texas; and Miami, Florida, as well as internationally to Grenada, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras.

“The U.S. Embassy official came up to us, and I asked him, ‘what kind of flight are we taking? Are they sending an empty plane to us?’... and he said, ‘Well, there are some people on this plane.’ And I said, ‘who is coming on the plane?’ And he said, ‘the involuntary kind,’” recalls Corie Welch, a staffer at the human rights nonprofit Witness for Peace, who was on the outgoing flight.

Welch described a chaotic process to get on the passenger list, where she and a group from Students Helping Honduras — an NGO which sends U.S. teachers to Honduras — tried and failed multiple times to get guidance from the embassy about how to return to the United States. “The only thing we were told from the embassy was ‘talk to your commercial airlines. They're going to let you know when flights are available,” she said.

After hearing about a football team being airlifted out of Honduras by a U.S. military plane, the group managed to get in touch with an embassy official who helped coordinate that flight. According to Welch, they were put on a list and told to be ready for pickup at a San Pedro Sula hotel, from where they’d be driven to the airport. She said that they were given very little information, and it wasn’t clear which people, if any, were being prioritized for the limited space aboard the plane.

Jessi Renehan, a Students Helping Honduras teacher, said she and her colleagues realized the plane had been carrying deportees before they boarded — but despite their guilt about the deportations, they were desperate for a way to get home.

Renehan and her fellow teachers got a US embassy official who was present at the airport to admit the plane had been carrying deportees, who she says they called “guests.” “He said, ‘There are guests on this plane who are deplaning now, and then the plane is going to come over and pick us up.’”

The plane itself, Renehan recalls, was staffed by officials wearing apparel that identified them as ICE officers. “We talked to them, and they said they had been doing these types of flights all week,” she said. The group was told that the plane had come from an ICE facility in Alexandria, Louisiana — the Alexandria Staging Facility, a processing center for immigrants who are about to be put on deportation flights operated by the GEO Group — and would be making deportation flights during the following week as well.

“My understanding is that they're just going to keep using the ICE flights. That's their plan because there're no commercial flights,” said Hannah Goosen, a Students Helping Honduras teacher who was also on the Swift Air jet. “We asked one of the ICE officers, actually. He said there's six more flights scheduled for the week. My friend asked ‘are you planning on sending U.S. citizens back on them?’ And he said ‘yes.’”

There is already some evidence that the use of ICE Air’s iAero plane was not a one-off. Photos taken Monday morning at the Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport on the Honduran island of Roatán show another group of U.S.-bound people boarding a different plane, an MD-83 twin-jet operated by World Atlantic Airlines. Along with iAero, the charter airline is one of the largest ICE Air contractors. In one photo, the jet’s tail number is visible: N805WA, a known ICE Air plane.

According to data provided by Phil Neff, project coordinator at the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, the plane made over 350 ICE Air flights between November 2012 and April 2019, the latest date for which data is available. Neff is part of the team that prepared “Hidden in Plain Sight,” a report on ICE Air’s operations, and said that while he cannot personally confirm that the World Atlantic and iAero jets are actively being used for deportations, their flight patterns and the World Atlantic jet’s long record of ICE service make this very likely.

In a statement, an ICE spokesperson said that it had “brought home a total of 209 United States citizens on the return leg of two removal flights via ICE Air Operations,” from Honduras and El Salvador on March 22 and March 24, respectively. “ICE will continue to work with the State Department to facilitate the safe return of U.S. citizens on future removal flight returns from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said. “These return operations could also potentially expand to other countries outside of the Northern Triangle.”

The U.S. claims it tests deportees for coronavirus symptoms prior to loading them onto planes, but there have already been reported cases of symptomatic detainees being deported anyway. Further, it’s clear that asymptomatic carriers could be boarding the planes anyway.

“It’s gravely concerning that this deportation machine is grinding onward in the midst of this pandemic,” said Charanya Krishnaswarmi, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for the Americas. “Knowing what we know about the historic track record of DHS’s negligence in all matters medical, I am very, very concerned about a resuming of deportations to Honduras.”

Honduras and other Central American countries have attempted to preempt mass spread of the virus by virtually locking down all aspects of civil society. In Honduras,  private and public sector workers have been told to stay home, public transport has been shut off, and nationals can only leave their homes to run errands, according to Reuters. Only essential services — such as banks, hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores — are still allowed to operate.

For recently repatriated deportees, the national lockdown means a complete lack of access to shelters and other organizations intended to help them get back on their feet and readjust to life in the country. It’s unclear how deportees are even expected to get home from the airport under the lockdown.

“It’s so enormously irresponsible to resume deportations when all of the services necessary to ensure that folks can reintegrate are basically being put on pause because of these really extreme shelter in place orders that these governments are — understandably — undertaking," Krishnaswarmi said.

Despite these stringent measures within the country, deportations continue. Records show that the Sunday Swift Air flight touched down in San Pedro Sula at 11:42am local time and was back in the air less than three hours later, at 2:40pm. During that time, the plane was apparently cleaned. Both Goosen and Welch said that there were no health controls for the group flying to the U.S. “They didn't take our temperatures in the airport in Honduras, and not when we arrived in the United States. We weren't given gloves, or masks, or hand sanitizer, or anything. They just dropped us off in Louisiana and were like, ‘you're welcome,’” said Welch.