ICE air operations, the arm of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency that handles international deportations, has rescued nearly 500 American citizens trapped abroad by coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
ICE has halted some deportations in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, according to Fox News, but criminals “deemed a safety risk or under mandatory deportation order due to criminal history” are still being arrested and flown out of the country on ICE deportation flights.
“Homeland Security Investigations will continue to carry out mission critical criminal investigations and enforcement operations as determined necessary to maintain public safety and national security. Examples include investigations into child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, human smuggling, and continued participation on the Joint Terrorism Task Force,” ICE said in a press release from earlier in March. “This work will be conducted based on ability to coordinate and work with prosecutors from the Department of Justice and intake at both the U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Prisons.”
Where ICE must fly, however, it is using its planes to help Americans who were unable to get home before the United States closed off most international air travel. In total, the Daily Caller News Foundation reports, ICE has brought back 466 Americans who would have been otherwise stranded in Central America.
“Following orders of final removal, ICE deported Salvadoran and Honduran nationals back to their home countries on Friday. On the return leg of these flights, the agency took aboard U.S. citizens who were stranded due to COVID-19 lockdowns,” the outlet reported late last week.
“ICE on Friday flew home 130 U.S. citizens from Honduras via two different flights, and another 127 U.S. citizens from El Salvador — all of whom were able to occupy ‘Space Available; seats on the return leg of these repatriation flights,” they continued.
The flights typically return home with just a pilot and crew on board.
“ICE will continue to work with the State Department to facilitate the safe return of U.S. citizens on future removal flight returns from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a press release about the program. “These return operations could also potentially expand to other countries outside of the Northern Triangle.”
The program is also occupying ICE’s time while most of its immigration enforcement efforts have been sidelined. Border enforcement agencies have stepped down most efforts because of limited room at detention facilities and concerns that crowding arrested illegal immigrants in existing facilities could result in a coronavirus outbreak. Last last week, a judge ruled that detainees who particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus should be released.
The Trump administration announced earlier in March that they would take a stricter approach to the country’s northern and southern borders. Only essential travel will be allowed across the border between the United States and Canada, and even fewer travelers will be allowed across the United States-Mexico border. Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who cross somewhere between official border checkpoints are reportedly being turned back.