Featured Immigration Writing

Florida companies are cashing in on deportation flights — about $35,000 per deportee

This investigation was published by the Miami Herald.

Journey Aviation advertises its luxury jet service as an indulgent travel option. With amenities like a built-in bar and stereo system, it seems like the ideal flying experience for celebrities or corporate executives.

But the South Florida air charter company often shuttles around a different kind of passenger: people in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The company’s Gulfstream jet has flown immigration deportees abroad more than 50 times since 2017, a review of internal ICE data shows. The flights have gone to Mauritania, Iraq, Nepal and many other countries across the globe. Each trip costs up to $280,000, which works out to about $35,000 per person deported.

Journey, which runs its business from an office at the state-owned airport in Boca Raton, is among a handful of Florida-based companies cashing in on transporting immigrants around the country and the world. And their profits are poised to grow as the Trump administration seeks a new influx of money for the already growing unit of ICE that handles the flights, an investigation by the Fund for Investigative Journalism has found.

Costly Charters

ICE Air sometimes uses commercial airlines to fly detainees. But most immigrant transport happens on private charters. And since 2017, most of ICE Air’s chartered flights have been arranged by two Florida-based companies that have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars.

As brokers, Classic Air Charter and Aircraft Transport Services in turn hire additional companies, many of them also in the Sunshine State, to provide planes, crews, pilots, guards, nurses and other services needed to operate the flights. Journey Aviation is one of those subcontractors, as is World Atlantic Airlines, which operates out of Miami.

Melbourne-based Classic Air organizes daily deportation flights within the Americas. It also handles the agency’s most expensive trips abroad — “special high risk charters” used to transport people who, for example, did not cooperate with earlier deportation attempts or are considered national security threats.

ICE has paid Classic Air, which relocated to Melbourne in late 2019, $467 million so far, with a potential payout of nearly $725 million by 2023. The company’s earnings are flowing at a much faster clip than its predecessor, New Mexico-based CSI Aviation, which made $1 billion between 2005 and 2017, a period twice as long as Classic Air’s contract.

Palm City-based Aircraft Transport Services arranges the agency’s longer-distance international flights to African, Asian, Middle Eastern and European countries. ICE has paid the company nearly $37 million since it started work at the end of the Obama administration.

ATS told FIJ that it “performs under the contract as directed and the services used have been consistent under both administrations.” The company, which is a commercially certified operator, said “there are no complaints of mistreatment or waste whatsoever involving our services.”

‘Huge, Huge, Huge’

ICE Air has grown “huge, huge, huge” since its early days, said Dee Norton, who helped establish the unit’s Mesa, Arizona, headquarters and worked there until her retirement in 2017.

The base of operations had just five employees in 2014, Norton said. Now, almost 150 people work there. And the agency has set up four more transport hubs at the airports in Miami as well as Alexandria, Louisiana, and San Antonio and Brownsville, Texas.

And the Trump administration is looking to bolster the agency further, asking Congress to increase ICE Air’s budget for chartered flights to $210 million, more than double what the agency spent on these flights during Barack Obama’s final year in office.

Under Trump, the unit has expanded its international footprint, setting up two dozen new staffers overseas to help facilitate deportations, with plans to hire more.

ICE Air has also increased the frequency of its flights overall — bumping them up by 18% between fiscal years 2018 and 2019 — and dramatically surging its charters to places outside the Western hemisphere.

The expansion has also included a twofold increasein ICE Air’s use of special high-risk charter flights compared to the Obama administration. ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress these flights are “substantially more costly” than others because they are logistically complicated, go to farther-away destinations and usually can’t carry many people at once.

Another reason for the steep costs: Only one air charter operator — Omni Air International in Oklahoma — is willing to operate these flights, according to letters from Classic Air to ICE that were obtained by Quartz.

Omni has charged ICE more than $1.5 million per flight on at least two occasions since 2018, which works out to about $12,000 per passenger, an FIJanalysis found.

“There seems to be no amount of resources that is too high when it comes to deporting people for this administration,” said Katherine Hawkins, a legal expert who analyzes U.S. immigration practices for the independent watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

But, Hawkins said, “the question of, ‘Is this a good use of resources at all?’ is a big one.”

ICE did not respond to a detailed list of findings provided by FIJ. But an agency spokesperson said that ICE “enforces the nation’s immigration laws in a fair and effective manner, and holds our employees to the highest standards of professional responsibility. As we carry out our mission, the safety of our staff and those in our custody is our highest priority. ICE is firmly committed to carrying out the agency’s sworn duty to enforce federal law as passed by Congress professionally, consistently, and in full compliance with agency policies.”

Secluded tarmacs

On chartered planes, ICE has more control over operations than on commercial ones, where pilots can refuse to fly uncooperative detainees and onlookers may scrutinize the agency’s actions.

Companies like Classic Air can arrange flights for ICE that keep a low profile and avoid interference from local law enforcement, in part by departing from remote airfields.

“We will need to be parked so the doors of the aircraft are not facing the public,” a Classic Air employee said in a 2019 email exchange with a prospective airport.

The airport director replied with an offer to provide “isolated airfield surfaces that can accommodate these charters outside the public’s view.”

More than 80 U.S. airports and 130 airports abroad have accepted ICE Air’s rented jets since 2010, according to internal data.

Detainees, advocates and lawyers familiar with the flights say they often depart from secluded tarmacs, early in the morning. And they say these tucked away airfields have been the scenes of abuse, including beatings, threats at gunpoint and unduly harsh restraints.

At least 15 times between 2007 and early 2019, people alerted a departmental watchdog to alleged excessive force, according to internal complaints obtained by the University of Washington, which is researching the human rights implications of ICE Air’s operations. The department closed all of these cases, and it’s unclear what action was taken.

Several detainees said ICE Air also uses restraints to threaten reluctant deportees.

“They make people scared so we get on the plane,” said Abdoul Aziz Djigo, who was deported to Mauritania in 2018 after living in Ohio for 25 years.

Aziz Djigo said guards at ICE Air’s Arizona headquarters threatened to wrap uncooperative detainees in restraints that look like blankets.

Some ICE locations have violated internal policies by restraining pregnant women and using non-approved handcuffs, according to internal call notes. And dozens of deportees said that they went hours or days without food, water or bathroom access. Many said they didn’t get their prescribed medications.

All this raises concerns among advocates, who say the opaque nature of the private charter system and the lax oversight of ICE Air could contribute to a proliferation of misconduct as the unit continues its expansion.

“It’s really shocking that there’s been no awareness and no investigation of these issues, and no apparent attempt to stop this abuse from happening,” said University of Washington professor Angelina Snodgrass Godoy. “It’s alarming how shrouded in secrecy it remains.”

Angelika Albaladejo is an independent journalist who received support for this investigation from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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