The Trump administration flew immigrant detainees to Virginia this summer to facilitate the rapid deployment of Homeland Security tactical teams to quell protests in Washington, circumventing restrictions on the use of charter flights for employee travel, according to a current and a former U.S. official.
After the transfer, dozens of the new arrivals tested positive for the novel coronavirus, fueling an outbreak at the Farmville, Va., immigration jail that infected more than 300 inmates, one of whom died.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency moved the detainees on “ICE Air” charter flights to avoid overcrowding at detention facilities in Arizona and Florida, a precaution they said was taken because of the pandemic.
But a Department of Homeland Security official with direct knowledge of the operation, and a former ICE official who learned about it from other personnel, said the primary reason for the June 2 transfers was to skirt rules that bar ICE employees from traveling on the charter flights unless detainees are also aboard.
The transfers took place over the objections of ICE officials in the Washington field office, according to testimony at a Farmville town council meeting in August, and at a time when immigration jails elsewhere in the country had plenty of beds available because of a dramatic decrease in border crossings and in-country arrests.
“They needed to justify the movement of SRT,” said the DHS official, referring to the special response teams. The official and the former ICE official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal decisions. They and another DHS official briefed on the operation characterized the tactical teams’ travel on ICE Air as a misuse of the charter flights. [Continue reading…]