Two Republican governors are calling for the Senate to investigate why the Biden administration hasn’t notified state and local governments before transporting illegal immigrants to their jurisdictions and releasing them there.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wrote a letter of support to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has called repeatedly for a hearing on the crisis on the southern border. 

“We believe this hearing should also address the Biden administration’s failure to provide notice and transparency in their movement of unaccompanied migrant children into states,” Reynolds and Lee said in the June 10 letter to Grassley. 

These two governors, both Republicans, have been among the most vocal critics of the Biden administration’s policy of using domestic flights to relocate illegal immigrants. 

The Daily Signal reported April 30 that the Biden administration has ramped up transporting illegal immigrants—adults as well as unaccompanied minors—from the southern border region to other locations in the United States. 

Here are four things to understand about government-approved flights transporting illegal immigrants into the interior of the country. 

1. Who Authorizes Flights for Adults?

The Department of Homeland Security now releases illegal immigrants to nonprofit groups that provide documents in manila folders for airport personnel to process. 

However, some of the flights relocating illegal immigrants to a desired U.S. location are handled directly by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE Air Operations.  

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another agency within the Department of Homeland Security, generally provides certain documents to illegal immigrants to get through airport security for flights arranged by nongovernmental organizations.

One example of such an NGO is the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, Texas. The organization processed more than 1,000 illegal immigrants for airline flights or buses to other areas of the United States over one recent three-day period, the head of the nonprofit, Tiffany Burrow, told a visiting group of immigration policy experts earlier this month. 

And over a 10-day period, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition facilitated travel for illegal immigrants from Texas to Florida, Indiana, New York, Tennessee, and Utah, Burrow told the visitors.

Regarding commercial flights, The Daily Signal previously reported that the Transportation Security Administration, another agency within the Department of Homeland Security, has a process for allowing illegal immigrants to board commercial flights along with members of the public who bought tickets.

The Transportation Security Administration primarily uses documents that Border Patrol agents give to illegal immigrants after catching them at the border, such as a Notice to Appear in immigration court and other “accepted forms of immigration-issued documents,” TSA spokeswoman Patricia Mancha told The Daily Signal last month.  

These documents acceptable to TSA include the I-94 form used for international travelers visiting the United States legally and the I-862 form, which is a Department of Homeland Security Notice to Appear in immigration court for illegal immigrants released from detention. 

The Transportation Security Administration also will accept Form I-385, a so-called Alien Booking Record used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This document could include information obtained from the arresting or delivering officer such as an illegal immigrant’s name, sex, age, date of birth, birthplace, country of citizenship, and medical issues. 

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden ousted Rodney Scott, head of the Border Patrol since January 2020, a year before Biden assumed the presidency.

An ICE spokesperson did not directly respond to written questions from The Daily Signal, including how many illegal immigrants have boarded commercial flights since Jan. 20, but referred to an August press release from ICE Air Operations, the agency’s air transportation arm.  

Although more recent flights have been to relocate illegal immigrants inside the United States, not take them back to their home countries, ICE Air Operations is based in the agency’s Removal Division in the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations. ICE Air Operations began in 2006. 

ICE Air Operations flies illegal immigrants from the location they were apprehended to local ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field offices, or ERO offices. From there, the ERO office determines whether the illegal immigrant will be detained or released.

ICE Air Operations “facilitates the transportation and removal of aliens via commercial flights; and since 2006, it has transferred and/or removed hundreds of thousands of aliens using air charter services,” the ICE press release says.

The charter flights consist of Boeing 737s for domestic international removals and Boeing 767s and 777s for what the agency calls special high-risk charters for dangerous illegal immigrants.

According to ICE, Mexican nationals in the interior of the country are flown to airports in San Diego, California, and Brownsville, Texas, then bused across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Illegal immigrants who originate in other countries—which officials sometimes call OTMs or “other than Mexicans”—are flown to airports in Mesa, Arizona; San Antonio, Texas; Alexandria, Louisiana; and Miami, Florida, on the way to Central and South America, ICE says.

In late May, the Biden administration reportedly ended flights transporting illegal immigrants into border areas for return to Mexico, a process that was part of a Trump-era program during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

That change occurred as the result of a settlement agreement between the Biden administration and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The administration agreed to allow 250 illegal immigrants a day to cross the border into the United States as part of the settlement for a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The agreement prevented the government from flying illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas; to El Paso, Texas; and to San Diego, California.

Customs and Border Protection agents turn over captured illegal immigrants to nongovernmental organizations such as the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, but the agency “is not involved” in scheduling flights, CBP public affairs officer Matthew Dyman told The Daily Signal.

“CBP is not involved with these flights. These can be either HHS or ICE flights,” Dyman said in an email. 

In late May, ICE spokeswoman Mary Houtman replied to a question from The Daily Signal by saying she had requested information on domestic transfer flights for illegal immigrants since Jan. 20, the day Biden became president. 

Neither Houtman nor the ICE press office has responded to follow-up inquiries. 

2. Who Authorizes Flights for Minors?

When unaccompanied minors who cross into the U.S. are flown elsewhere by government action, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, arranges the government-chartered flights. 

“As part of the unification process, [Office of Refugee Resettlement] is currently facilitating travel for the children in ORR’s custody to their sponsors to prevent any delays,” an HHS spokesperson told The Daily Signal in a June 7 email response to questions, adding:

Their parents and relatives are located across the United States, and ORR contractors use various transportation modes to unite unaccompanied children with their families, including air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, travel time, and cost-effectiveness.

The Biden administration reversed many of former President Donald Trump’s border security policies, halting deportations, stopping construction of the border wall, and ending the “Remain in Mexico” policy requiring asylum-seekers to make their claim there until it can be adjudicated.

From October 2020 to April 2021, HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement released 27,417 minors to “sponsors,” meaning a relative or other guardian who will care for the child. 

That’s an increase from 16,837 from the entire fiscal year stretching from October 2019 through September 2020. This is the most recent available data, overlapping the Trump and Biden administrations. HHS did not provide information indicating how the change in administrations affected the numbers. 

In more than 80% of release cases, a child has a relative in the United States and in 40% of such cases, that relative is a parent or legal guardian, according to HHS. 

 3. What’s the Impact on States?

The most recent available HHS data, spanning October 2020 to April 2021, breaks down the number of unaccompanied children flown to specific states after they cross into the U.S. from Mexico. 

Texas, a border state, had the largest share with 3,904 children; followed by 2,845 in Florida; 2,700 in California; and 2,323 in New York. 

Over those six months, the only other states to receive more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors who have sponsors were Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 

During the same stretch, the government flew 163 unaccompanied minors to Iowa. 

In May, Tennessee’s Lee led a letter to Biden in which he and 19 other Republican governors called for action while asserting that the border crisis was affecting other states that aren’t on the border. 

News reports primarily have focused on Iowa and Tennessee as destinations for HHS-arranged flights for unaccompanied minors. 

In their letter to Grassley, the Iowa and Tennessee governors say the transport of unaccompanied children into their states came with no advance notification from the U.S. government. They also note that the federal government did not seek the consent of their states, nor provide a plan for what to do with the minors. 

“These experiences sow seeds of mistrust in our communities, and work to intentionally subvert the will of the people for a secure border and a clear, lawful immigration process,” the two governors write, adding:

Additionally, the lack of transparency places an undue burden on our law enforcement partners to determine whether these types of flights constitute a criminal act of human trafficking or the federally sponsored transport of vulnerable children.

Under the Biden administration, the HHS-approved flights have transported illegal immigrants to Tennessee, including to airports in Chattanooga and Knoxville

Some of these unaccompanied children reportedly just had come across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

From October to April, Tennessee received 1,111 unaccompanied minors released to sponsors, according to the HHS data. 

In Iowa, Reynolds was upset by the federal government’s lack of transparency about an April 22 flight carrying 19 unaccompanied minors to Des Moines on the way to sponsor families. Federal officials did not notify state or local officials. 

The Iowa governor’s office issued a timeline showing that beginning May 7, HHS officials said that the agency did not authorize that flight. 

After Department of Homeland Security officials also denied to the governor’s office that it authorized flying the children to Des Moines, Reynolds asked Grassley for assistance. 

On May 21, HHS confirmed to the Iowa senator that it actually did authorize the flight from Long Beach, California, for the purpose of unifying the unaccompanied minors with sponsors, according to the governor’s timeline. 

Two buses carried the children from the airport to various locations. 

4. Are These Illegal Immigrants Tested for COVID-19?

In the email to The Daily Signal, the HHS spokesperson said the Office of Refugee Resettlement follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preventing and controlling communicable diseases, including COVID-19. 

“Consistent with CDC COVID-19 guidelines, Unaccompanied Children who have been exposed to COVID-19 are quarantined for at least seven days, monitored, and tested in consultation with the medical provider,” the spokesperson said, adding: 

Children who have symptoms of respiratory disease are medically isolated and evaluated by a medical provider. Children with lab-confirmed COVID-19 are medically isolated for a minimum of 10 days and until they have met CDC’s criteria for discontinuation of isolation.

[Office of Refugee Resettlement] Intakes has also implemented a new COVID-19 health screening protocol for all referrals to determine if a minor has any potential symptoms. If a child tests positive after arrival, they are removed from the remaining population and placed at a facility offsite, or cohorted onsite, for the welfare of the child, staff, and others.

ICE did not respond to a question from The Daily Signal about whether adult illegal immigrants or families processed by that agency are tested for COVID-19 before being put on commercial flights.

Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.

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