A CBP spokesperson said that the individual, who they did not publicly identify, had legal immigration documents but received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions for domestic assault, driving while impaired, and violating a protective order.
The search prompted several passengers to post photos online, and it raised questions about whether it was connected to current federal law enforcement efforts to locate, detain and deport undocumented immigrants — a push that has intensified at the direction of President Trump.
A spokesperson for Delta did not respond to a request for comment.
Jordan Wells, a staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that law enforcement officials sometimes board airplanes to apprehend a suspect or a fugitive, he said it would be unusual for authorities to wait outside an arriving airplane and to ask for identification for each passenger.
“They’ll occasionally pull someone off of a flight, or officers will come on and make an arrest,” Wells said. “It’s a much more surgical thing than setting up a dragnet. That’s what is so alarming about the way that this played out.”
It is unclear what would have happened had officials found undocumented immigrants getting off the airplane and whether they would have faced deportation if identified. It is also unclear what would have happened to any passenger who refused to produce his or her identification for the agents.
“Is this a mere request to see identification?” Wells said. “Would they have been detained but for them showing ID? Because then it’s no longer a consensual encounter and the Constitution enters the equation.”
Under the Obama administration, ICE had been instructed to prioritize finding and deporting undocumented immigrants with prior criminal convictions. However, Under President Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has issued new guidelines to ICE and CBP that further empower federal agents to target, detain and deport any of the millions of immigrants currently in the United States without documentation, including those without past criminal convictions. Those policy changes have sparked fear in immigrant communities nationwide, leading to immediate concern among immigrants and activists in response to any visible ICE action, such as the one Wednesday.
“An individual with a final order of removal from a federal immigration judge was scheduled to be on a flight from San Francisco to JFK on the evening of Feb. 22, in furtherance of the removal process,” ICE said in a statement. “It was later determined that the individual was not placed on the flight in San Francisco.”
A DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an active law enforcement investigation said that such searches and collaboration between CBP and ICE such as the one on Wednesday evening are routine and are not new measures due to increased immigration enforcement.
“When we’re asked by our law enforcement partners to assist in searching for a person of interest, we are able to, and will, help,” the official said. “This isn’t a new policy or related to any new executive order.”
An earlier version of this article identified the immigrant ordered deported as “undocumented” because U.S. officials described the person that way on Thursday. Customs and Border Protection officials clarified on Friday that the immigrant was in the country with proper documentation, but had been ordered deported following criminal convictions.