The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Claims of ‘ghost flights’ of ‘illegal immigrants’ don’t add up

(David J. Phillip/AP)
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“We write to you today with grave concern regarding your administration’s repeated flying of illegal immigrants from sites along our Southern Border to locations around the United States, including our home state of New York.”

Letter to President Biden signed by Rep. Elise Stefanick and other GOP House members from New York, Jan. 31

Ghost flights! Secret flights with “underage migrants” in the dead of night! Buses packed with adult “illegal aliens!”

If you are not a regular watcher of Fox News or a reader of the New York Post, Breitbart or the Daily Mail, you might be puzzled by the references above. There’s been virtually no coverage of this supposed news by mainstream media outlets. But there’s been a constant drumbeat of concern in right-wing media, highlighted often by GOP candidates running for governor in Pennsylvania and New York. So one of our colleagues suggested we try to figure out what’s going on.

The implication in some of the news coverage is that the Biden administration is quietly dumping undocumented immigrants into various states away from the border. But that’s wrong. As far as we can tell, little new or different is going on under Biden than under the Trump administration, though the pace of such flights may have increased because of the surge of migrants at the border.

This is more of an explainer, so we’re not offering a Pinocchio rating.

The Facts

Both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) fly undocumented immigrants to different locations in the United States. ICE handles adults and HHS is responsible for children. At times, both agencies rely on the same contractor, MVM Inc., to manage the flights.

In other words, the same aircraft and crew could one day be ferrying adults to an ICE detention center and the next day carrying unaccompanied minors for HHS. Moreover, on occasion ICE Air, as the entity is known, might be contracted to handle an HHS flight.

“Some of the confusion comes from the fact that we use MVM, the contractor, and so does HHS,” said an ICE official. “We often are charged with providing transportation of unaccompanied minors.”

ICE itself transports thousands of detainees to different detention facilities, in part to maintain a 75 percent bed capacity because of pandemic protocols, the official said. About 21,000 people were in ICE detention as of Jan. 16, compared with about 27,000 in July, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

“It’s important to highlight that these are individuals in our custody,” the official said. “We do not transport individuals on ICE flights that have been released from our custody or paroled into the U.S. to await immigration proceedings.”

In some cases, the news reporting appears to have mixed up the type of flights or not made it clear that HHS is sending unaccompanied children to relatives or sponsors. Then, when administration officials explained these were HHS flights, an ICE flight would be spotted, resulting in accusations that adults also were being secretly being shipped across the country. But these are just ICE detainees going to another detention facility, officials said.

Meanwhile, HHS has a different role, required by law.

There are a set of rules in place for the handling of unaccompanied children who cross the border, guided largely by the 1997 “Flores settlement” and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. In essence, unaccompanied children should not be held by Customs and Border Protection for longer than 72 hours. Instead, the federal government must release rather than detain undocumented immigrant children, first to their parents, if possible, to other adult relatives if not, and to licensed programs willing to accept custody if no relatives are available.

“This is completely consistent with the law and our responsibilities,” HHS spokesman Jorge Silva in a statement. “Our legal responsibility is to care for unaccompanied children while they are on our watch, and that includes connecting them to vetted sponsors.”

“Once a child is referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), we have policies in place, based on legal requirements as well as child welfare best practices, for assigning children to the most appropriate ORR care provider facility and releasing children to a suitable vetted sponsor as they await their immigration proceedings,” an HHS official told The Fact Checker. “ORR makes every effort to unify a child with an appropriate sponsor or family member. As a result, 90 percent of the children referred to ORR are able to be unified with a sponsor or family member.” ORR’s legal custody ends when the child is placed with a sponsor.

“HHS flights involving unaccompanied children are generally for the purposes of transferring children to a new federal facility or transporting them to the approved sponsor when the sponsor is not able to travel to a federal facility to receive the child,” said Essey Workie, director of the Human Services Initiative at the Migration Policy Institute. “I have no knowledge of adults with unauthorized immigration status being on these flights.”

“ORR only cares for unaccompanied children 17 years of age and younger, not adults or families,” the HHS official said. For privacy reasons concerning underage children, the agency provides few details on the flights or the ultimate destination of the children. Officials were troubled when one news organization, tracking flight landings, followed buses carrying the children to their destinations.

HHS data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute shows that 107,646 children were released to sponsors in the fiscal year between Oct. 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021, thus including part of Donald Trump’s presidency. That is significantly more than the previous high of 72,837 set during the 2019 fiscal year. The counties with the most children outside of Texas and California — border states — are in Florida, New York, Maryland, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. That would suggest a lot of plane flights were needed.

HHS data show about two-thirds of the children in that fiscal year were male, and about one-third were 17, which could suggest why some witness thought they saw adults. Almost half came from Guatemala.

During an October news briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about reports that “thousands of migrants” were being flown in the “middle of the night.”

“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor,” Psaki said, disputing the notion of “middle of the night” flights. “It’s no surprise that kids can be seen traveling through states, not just New York. It’s something that we’re also working to unite children with their family members or vetted sponsors in other parts of the country as well.”

Administration officials said flights take place at all times of the day. Given flight routes from the border, flights in the Northeast might be at the end of a series of hops. Sometimes the federal government seeks to save money by arranging for a flight to land later in the evening.

In November, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) accused the Biden administration of secretly flying migrants into his state in the dead of night, CNN checked flight logs for 47 flights between late April and early October and found many took place during the day; 15 landed in Jacksonville between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. The report added: “A former senior Health and Human Services official who served under Trump told CNN these flights also occurred during the Trump administration and at times, similarly, landed at late hours of the night.”

The controversy over these flights erupted anew recently when a GOP candidate for governor in New York, former Westchester County executive Rob Astorino, obtained 51 minutes of video footage from the body cam of Westchester County Police Sgt. Michael Hamborsky. A Boeing 737 jet from Fort Bliss, Tex., had landed on Aug. 31, carrying 142 unaccompanied children who were being transported to buses. The buses were supposed to have been waiting for the flights, but they were late because “someone dropped the ball,” Hamborsky is told.

Hamborksy expressed frustration at the apparent lack of security and apparent unwillingness of the contractors to provide much identification. “A lot of this is just down-low stuff that we don’t tell people because what we don’t want to do is attract attention,” a contractor explains to the officer. Another offers this explanation for the secrecy: “Because if this gets out, the government is betraying the American people.”

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, whose department oversees security at Albany International Airport, told the Times Union the circumstances seen on the video seemed unusual and security forces should have been alerted to the flight as a matter of professional courtesy.

“The video is from six months ago in August,” a White House official said in an email. “The footage is of unaccompanied minors being transported, either to a vetted relative or to a sponsor, and yes they passed through Westchester County, N.Y., en route to their final destination.”

The letter signed by Stefanik and other GOP lawmakers skirts around the fact that these are unaccompanied children who, under the law, must be transported to relatives or sponsors. Instead, the letter refers repeatedly to “illegal immigrants” and the Department of Homeland Security, leaving unclear that this is a Health and Human Services program.

Asked why, Stefanik spokeswoman Francis Brennan pointed to an HHS fact sheet that said unaccompanied children are “defined as a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States.”

The Bottom Line

We’re not sure how much stock to put in the random musings of unidentified contractors. The video at Westchester County Airport certainly suggests the HHS flights for unaccompanied children do not always operate like a smooth machine. But the video does not provide evidence that something nefarious is going on here.

As a technical matter, unaccompanied children are undocumented immigrants. But that still doesn’t excuse reporting or claims by politicians that suggest these “illegal immigrants” are being shipped across the country under the cover of darkness in potential violation of the law. Rather, the law requires that these children be released from custody and placed with someone who will care for them. Mixing them up with ICE detainees — who are being shipped from one detention facility to another — only confuses matters.

The Trump administration also operated such flights of unaccompanied children. The only difference may be that there are more under Biden — and that he’s a Democrat.

We will keep our eye on the political rhetoric surrounding this issue — and the administration’s response — to see if Pinocchio ratings are merited in the future.

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