For months, Republican politicians and commentators have been accusing the Biden administration of flying thousands of undocumented migrants on secret nighttime “ghost flights” from the border to cities all over the country.
“Here’s what happens with these flights,” Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, said at a news conference in November. “There’s no notification to the state of Florida. These are done mostly in the middle of the night. And it’s clandestine.”
The controversy took off on Fox News, especially after Rob Astorino, who is running for governor of New York, released a murky video this month showing migrant teenagers disembarking from a plane in Orange County, N.Y. “We the citizens pay all the bills,” he complained on Twitter.
Mr. DeSantis, who has made President Biden’s immigration policies a cornerstone of his own presidential ambitions, resurrected the issue again last week when he signed a bill, part of a package of measures designed to combat human trafficking and illegal immigration, to penalize airline companies that knowingly transport undocumented immigrants to the state except to detain or deport them.
By talking about supposedly secret nighttime flights, critics are creating an aura of mystery around a relatively straightforward issue: transporting the large number of unaccompanied migrant children who have been crossing the border for the past several years, whose arrivals have escalated since Mr. Biden took office.
After being processed at the border, many of these children and teenagers are flown to federally licensed shelters around the country before being released to family members. Thousands of such flights have been a routine part of immigration operations in the United States for decades, including under former President Donald J. Trump.
While the planes, operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sometimes land at late hours of the night, they also operate during daylight hours, and they do not constitute covert or clandestine operations.
Many immigrant rights and child welfare advocates say politicians are using migrant children to inflame passions over immigration ahead of the November midterm elections.
Who are the passengers on these flights?
Most children crossing the border alone are from Central America, and when they travel without a parent, they usually carry with them contact information of a parent, relative or friend who is expecting them.
Under anti-trafficking legislation passed with bipartisan support by Congress, the children, known by the government as “unaccompanied minors,” must remain in the custody of the U.S. government until a sponsor, usually a family member, has provided requisite paperwork and passed vetting.
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The number of these children has soared since Mr. Biden took office, in part because they are not subject to the pandemic-related public health restrictions that have limited the arrival of other migrants.
In the first eight months of this fiscal year, agents have encountered about 100,000 underage migrants traveling alone, compared with nearly 150,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, a record that could be exceeded this year.
Like adults who enter the country without a visa, underage migrants are placed in deportation proceedings. Lawyers help them apply for asylum or other forms of legal protection that can result in permanent residency in the United States.
Where are the migrant children going and why?
By law, children can remain no longer than 72 hours in border processing centers, which are often crowded, rudimentary facilities where migrants sleep on the floor in cells.
Government officials say the young migrants must be taken to places where they can be properly cared for before they are eventually released to a guardian.
As of June 21, there were 10,961 young migrants in shelters across the country, where they typically remain for a few weeks. Where the children are placed depends on where beds are available: Capacity constraints at shelters located near the border lead authorities to put them on planes to reach shelters in the interior.
“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be placed with a family member or other vetted sponsor,” the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates shelters for migrant children, said in a statement.
“Travel may consist of flights originating from various locations with stops or layovers in different airports,” the statement said.
Many of them originate in Texas and Arizona, where large numbers of children cross the border. After being taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents, some minors are transported by bus or van to shelters nearby. Others are flown to Florida, New York and Pennsylvania, some of the states where there are licensed facilities.
The number of flights has increased as more children have arrived.
Privacy, security and shifting logistics are among the reasons that states are not given advance notice of the flights, government officials said.
Yet while the numbers may have expanded, the flights are part of a process that also occurred under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
“For years, both Republican and Democratic administrations have used charter flights to safely transfer unaccompanied children from the border to shelters nationwide,” said Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School.
“The claim that these flights are new or secretive is baseless and irresponsible,” she said.
What is the concern about the flights?
Right-wing media, including Fox News, Breitbart and The New York Post, have reported that planeloads of migrants are being secretly flown in the dead of night in an apparent attempt to keep Americans from knowing how many immigrants are arriving in the country.
Government officials say that flights depart at all hours of the day and night, depending on a variety of factors, including the number of children, air space restrictions and weather conditions, and that no attempt is made to hide their arrival.
The more fundamental concern expressed by politicians who keep talking about “ghost flights” is a familiar one: the issue of what they see as an insecure border and uncontrolled immigration, with impacts on states across the country, not just the border.
“The drugs that are coming in affect us, and then just the sheer number of people,” Mr. DeSantis said during a news conference in Pensacola last week.
“If he’s letting all these people in,” he said of the president, “and they’re going to all communities across our country, just think how many schools are going to be overwhelmed, other health care, other types of public services, just because they can’t keep control of the border.”
Why are more children coming?
Large numbers of migrant children traveling alone began to make their way to the southern border in 2013 as gang violence flared in Central America.
Jason Boyd, senior director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense, which provides legal assistance to unaccompanied minors, said that many of them had fled “life-threatening dangers.”
Overall unauthorized migrant crossings have reached record levels since Mr. Biden took office, a situation that experts say is a result not only of worsening violence and economic hardship but a perception that the Biden administration would be more welcoming to migrant children than the Trump administration was.
Critics like Mr. DeSantis are blaming the Biden administration for allowing human smuggling networks to profit from the desperation of migrants. Among the new measures the Florida governor outlined last week was a law enforcement strike force to deal with illegal migrant and weapons smuggling and a petition to the State Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to look at smuggling organizations and how they affect Florida.
National anti-immigration groups continue to seize on the “ghost flights” issue. Last week, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that lobbies to curb all immigration, announced a new series of digital ads under the moniker “Stop the Night Flights” that it said were designed to “expose the magnitude of the Biden administration’s night flight illegal immigration transportation program.”
Immigrant rights groups call the “ghost flights” issue a cynical attempt to use vulnerable children for political advantage during the midterm election campaign.
“Weaponizing these kids is needlessly cruel and appeals to crude xenophobic and racist impulses,” said Ms. Mukherjee of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. “For these politicians, the kids are a campaign tool being used for political gain.”