The watchdog agency said in a report this month that ICE, which falls under Homeland Security, spent $12 million on charter flights that were less than 40 percent full between October 2010 and March 2014.
All told, auditors found that ICE spent about $116 million on flights that were at least 20 percent under full capacity. Of the nearly 7,500 flights they reviewed, more than one-third were at least that empty.
The report concluded that ICE “may have been able to transport the same number of detainees with fewer missions at a lower charter air cost.”
ICE contends that delaying trips to fill more seats could prove more costly in the end. The average rate for detaining a single adult is $122 per day, while the cost for a family is more than $300 per day, the agency told the Post by email on Monday.
Additionally, the agency noted that a 2001 Supreme Court ruling limits detention of undocumented immigrants to six months, although some exceptions are allowed.
ICE has access to eight charter aircraft, each of which can hold up to 135 detainees. The agency pays about $8,400 per hour for the flights, regardless of how many passengers are aboard.
Not all detainees fly home on charter flights. ICE transports some of them on commercial airlines, depending upon country of citizenship, criminal status, family situation and other factors.
Records show that ICE picked up or dropped off more than 23,500 detainees at locations where its charter flights had not flown. In one example, the agency claimed to have removed 54 individuals to Nicaragua, but the flight only stopped in Louisiana, Texas and Guatemala.
Auditors also identified six cases in which ICE moved detainees multiple times between the same cities without documenting why the redundant trips were necessary.
Additionally, ICE did not track whether detainees had criminal records and did not keep information about why scheduled passengers missed their flights, according to the report.
The inspector general recommended that ICE establish reporting standards and create procedures for measuring performance with detainee flights, among other suggestions.
In its official response to the findings, ICE agreed with all of the recommendations but said that empty seats don’t necessarily indicate inefficient flights.
“While ICE agreed with and was already in the process of making a number of improvements suggested by the report, the agency strongly disagrees with the report’s use of empty seats on flights as a measure of efficiency,” the agency said in a statement on Monday. “Chiefly because delaying the removal of individuals in order to fill empty seats causes the agency to incur ancillary costs that may exceed the cost of the seats.”
* Updated with additional input from ICE at 4 p.m., April 20, 2015.