ICE Air: The Airline You Never Want To Fly

Sep 26, 2018
Originally published on September 26, 2018 10:29 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have the story now of an airline you'd probably never want to fly on - ICE Air, the airline operation that Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to fly deportees back home. It has plenty of passengers, though. So far this fiscal year, the operation is $107 million over budget. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: ICE Air is the little-known one-way ticket transportation arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And it's busier than ever because of stepped-up deportations under President Trump, and more countries around the globe are agreeing to take back deportees from the U.S. The cost to keep up the pace has jumped 30 percent this fiscal year.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Ten times a week, an unmarked white jetliner lands at the airport in Guatemala City and disgorges a hundred or so unhappy passengers. They enter the Guatemalan Air Force terminal, check in with immigration and spill out of double doors ready to sneak back to the U.S. border or restart their lives.

LUIS ALBERTO CASTRO: I left Guatemala in 1983.

BURNETT: Luis Alberto Castro is 53. He overstayed his student visa 35 years ago, started a remodeling business in Salt Lake City, raised a family, then got arrested and deported. He carries a plastic bag full of his belongings. His sneakers are loose because they took away his shoestrings during detention. I comment that he's smiling. He doesn't look especially blue.

CASTRO: I am sad. But, you know, what are you going to do? I'll see my family. My wife is willing to come here.

BURNETT: Castro says he was picked up by immigration agents after he was pulled over by the cops for speeding. He complains that ICE Air treated everyone on board like a felon. An ICE spokesman says restraining unlawful immigrants is consistent with their detention standards.

CASTRO: We were handcuffed the whole time. They shouldn't be treating us like total criminals.

BURNETT: On the flight from Mesa, Ariz., to Guatemala, there were no in-flight movies, no pillows, no pretzels. Castro says a dozen uniformed security guards kept an eye on them. Lunch was a sandwich.

CASTRO: No bologna, no ham, no nothing. Just cheese with a couple of pieces of bread.

BURNETT: American cheese - their farewell meal. As the airliner descended toward the conical volcanoes that surround the valley of Guatemala, the guards came around with handcuff keys.

CASTRO: They removed the handcuffs on us 20 minutes before we got here.

BURNETT: ICE Air flew more than 97,000 migrants home last year. The most went to Guatemala, followed in order by Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. ICE Air also flies detainees between U.S. cities. As jail populations ebb and flow, it charters smaller Gulfstream jets for deportations of high-risk immigrants, and it buys tickets on commercial flights when there aren't enough deportees to fill up a charter flight, though, this summer, several major carriers refused to fly children who'd been separated from their parents by the government.

ICE did not have a breakdown for the cost of a typical charter flight, but these international trips are expensive. An inspector general's report three years ago calculated the cost of charter flights at about $8,500 per hour, regardless the number of passengers. ICE Air relies on a network of contractors. The biggest is CSI Aviation of Albuquerque, whose contract with Homeland Security swelled from $88 million to $96 million this year. The CEO is Allen Weh, who was interviewed here on a business podcast called "President And CEO."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "PRESIDENT AND CEO")

ALLEN WEH: We move people out of the country, and often we will move people in the country, and, frequently, they will be in handcuffs.

BURNETT: Wei has run for several statewide offices in New Mexico as a Republican. He's a longtime donor to GOP causes, including the Trump Victory campaign. These are not the only federal contractors that provide services to ICE. For-profit detention giants GEO Group and CoreCivic run immigrant detention centers scattered across the country - further evidence that immigration enforcement is big business. John Burnett, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.