- 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.

On June 26, the plane traveled from Brownsville to Tucson, Tucson to McAllen, McAllen to El Paso, El Paso to Brownsville, Brownsville to Tucson, and Tucson to McAllen.

“They’re just moving them around to places where they can house them till they figure out what to do next,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors increased immigration enforcement. “At this point, they’re scrambling to find places to put them around the country, and nobody seems to want them. And not because they don’t have compassion, but because it comes with enormous expense.”

Harris County officials said unaccompanied minors were being flown into George Bush Intercontinental Airport after protesters in Murrieta, California, blocked buses carrying immigrants to a processing station.

“When you have unaccompanied minors, you become obligated not just for the education but for all kinds of services, everything from feeding to housing,” Mehlman said. “We don’t expect 10-year-olds to take care of themselves.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the Rio Grande Valley sector alone has ballooned 178 percent so far this fiscal year compared to the year-ago period. The fiscal year starts in October.

In attempt to stem the flow, the Obama administration has been trumpeting the message that there are no “permits” given to those who cross the border, and that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) act, which spares youths brought here as children from deportation, does not apply to recent arrivals.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Panama City recently, stressed that message in a meeting with leaders from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“There are rules of law, and there is a process, and there is false information that is being spread about benefits that might be available to these young people,” Kerry said.

CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske traveled to a busy crossing area on the Rio Grande earlier this month to launch a Spanish-language campaign broadcasting the perils of the journey via the airwaves and on billboards.

“Children, especially, are easy prey for coyotes and transnational criminal organizations, and they can be subjected to robbery, violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or forced labor,” Kerlikowske said.

Cuellar, who spent that day at a Rio Grande Valley field hearing on the crisis, said the better deterrent would be showing photos of people being flown home.

“This is not the first time we’ve had a surge,” he said. “You had the Brazilians in 2005, you had the Civil War from El Salvador in the 1980s,” Cuellar said. “And talking to Border Patrol (members) that have been in the process before … the best deterrent is to detain and remove (them) as quickly as possible.”

But Cuellar said that would take changing the 2008 law that says minors from countries that don’t border the U.S. are turned over to Health and Human Services to be placed with family members or foster homes until their hearing - which may be two years away.

“Mr. Juan Osuna, who’s in charge of all the immigration courts, he said, ‘Henry, even if we go through this process and we get an order to remove, ICE is going to say, ‘Are they criminals? Are they a priority? Oh, they’re not a priority? Well, we’ll get to those whenever we can,’” Cuellar said.

“The way the process is right now … if I am a mother with kids or I am a child and I just make it to the U.S., they’re going to put me in a bus station or they’re just going to let me go with a piece of paper. That’s a pretty good risk I need to take.”

Cuellar said he’s working with Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee on legislation that would change language in the law so unaccompanied minors are treated the same irrespective of whether their home countries border the United States.

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The Houston Chronicle contributed to this report.

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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