- Associated Press - Sunday, July 13, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - One by one, some striding in flip-flops, others walking with shoulders hunched and fists in pockets - and one or two in what appeared to be handcuffs - the youths stepped out of the rear of an MD-82 that had landed at Port San Antonio’s Kelly Field.

Directed by casually uniformed officials, the youths headed for waiting buses with darkened windows. The officials then got back on the plane, and the buses drove toward for Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

At the Air Force base, children were taking turns playing soccer in impromptu fields outside the military dorms used to house some of the flood of young Central American immigrants heading north for a chance at the American dream.

They were passengers on “ICE Air,” a low-profile but increasingly busy carrier that uses San Antonio as one of its main hubs, the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1k3SKuT) reported.

Run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE Air uses a fleet of charter planes - this particular one owned by Orange Air LLC, a relatively new charter operation that has been kept busy flying back and forth, with stops in Texas, Arizona and California.

Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied Central American minors have been taken into custody after crossing the border.

Although the youth immigration crisis is only recently making headlines, ICE Air has been around for years, providing air transport between ICE Enforcement and Operations’ 24 field offices and “hub cities” such as San Antonio; Mesa, Arizona; Alexandria, Louisiana; and Miami.

Media in 2008 and 2009 widely reported about the U.S. government-paid flights - with box lunches the main passenger amenity - to take adult immigrants back home, primarily to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

In addition to using seats on commercial aircraft, ICE Air has since 2006 used charters to deport hundreds of thousands of people to their home countries.

During the 2013 fiscal year, ICE Air transported 189,000 people to 16 countries, conducting an average of 43 charter flights a week to foreign and domestic locations. The cost per flight hour has been reported at about $8,300.

With the surge of unaccompanied minors taking the gamble that they’ll at worst be sent home after a years-long process, there have been even more ICE flights.

“In speaking with our officers assigned to ICE Air Operations, ICE’s air transportation arm, air transports have been so heavily used during the crisis that two additional planes have already been leased, and still more could be utilized,” Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118, said during June 25 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.

But according to a recent update by U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, none of the surge of unaccompanied minors has been sent home. Rather, there’s been stepped-up deportation of Central American adults. Cuellar said there currently are at least 20 to 25 flights a week, each carrying 135 adults.

While ICE has been scrambling to transport minors with commercial, charter, and Coast Guard and Homeland Security aircraft, that movement has been between U.S. destinations.

Orange Air did not return a call about the company’s work with ICE, but flight records showed as many as six flights a day for the plane since mid-June, all to or from the border states of Texas, Arizona and California with at least one flight to Lawton-Fort Sill in Oklahoma, which also has a facility for unaccompanied youths.

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