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DHS Document Reveals Allegations of Abuse on ICE Air Deportation Flights

August 16, 2019

Earlier this year, UWCHR released two research reports on the human rights implications of ICE Air Operations, the network of public and private relationships that makes possible the mass deportation of migrants from the United States. Our report on ICE Air’s operations globally took note of serious abuses, including due process violations, and the repatriation of migrants to countries they had fled under circumstances that suggest violations of international law. It also mentioned several documented cases of physical violence against detainees by guards, either in airports or aboard the flights themselves.

As part of our ongoing research into this topic, our research team filed Freedom of Information Act requests for several types of documents regarding abuses on deportation flights. In July, we received this document in response to one of those requests:

The document is a 58-page PDF of a spreadsheet containing 99 records of complaints filed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) regarding “ICE matters with flight(s) in the summary”. The complaints listed include numerous accounts of mistreatment, excessive force, and due process violations. They also include an alleged miscarriage by a Salvadoran woman experiencing a high risk pregnancy (see row 7 of the document), a detainee death—its cause not explained—aboard a deportation flight to Honduras (row 20), and a suicide in an Egyptian airport holding area by a deportee en route to Eritrea (row 76).

These complaints relate to both private charter flights operated by ICE Air, as well as commercial passenger flights used for deportation purposes. Only a minority of these alleged abuses were ever reported in the media or documented by human rights organizations. Indeed, the worst abuses noted go far beyond those previously disclosed aboard ICE deportation flights.

The CRCL document released here references various forms of investigations and actions taken regarding these complaints, ranging from “No Response Necessary” to referrals to the DHS unit involved or investigations by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG).[1] Alarmingly, in response to our related FOIA request for documentation regarding any investigation conducted by the DHS OIG regarding ICE Air Operations removal flights from 2010 to 2019, ICE told us no such records existed. In other words, despite having received complaints of violence aboard flights and in airports, both through the media[2] and the agency’s own grievance mechanism, no apparent investigation was conducted by OIG.[3]

Similarly, we have requested copies of quarterly and annual safety reports submitted to the Department of Homeland Security; after being told no such records exist, despite the requirement that such records be provided in contracts for ICE Air Operations of Daily Flights Charter Services by subcontractors, we appealed, and are still awaiting final response from the agency. In a March 2019 interview, an ICE employee told us informally that no adverse safety events involving abuse of deportees had ever been noted on these reports.[4]

While we await final response to these and other requests for information, and are currently involved in FOIA litigation against DHS in a number of related cases, it is clear from the records and agency responses reviewed to date that ICE lacks effective mechanisms for ensuring detainee safety on its deportation flights by investigating allegations of abuse, sanctioning those responsible, and implementing policies to prevent the repetition of abuses.

In fact, the FOIA request that led to the release of this document was seeking documentation of abuses reported to the Detention Reporting and Information Line (DRIL), as advertised on p. 17 of the Detainee Handbook; the records provided do not correspond to that hotline, but instead to more general complaints received by DHS’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. The document released by CRCL presents additional limitations, such as the inclusion of irrelevant records and truncated fields containing longer summaries of the allegations.

As a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office made clear, a plethora of reporting mechanisms exist for reporting concerns surrounding treatment of detainees in DHS custody; most of these, however, add up to little in terms of effectiveness. Recent reporting has brought to light the toothlessness of CRCL in particular. A branch of DHS purportedly created to prevent civil rights abuses, CRCL is unequipped to bring about any meaningful action even when confronted with indications of grievous wrongs against children. Indeed, CRCL released a similarly disturbing set of complaints about family separation drawn from the same grievance log as these abuses related to ICE deportation flights. In neither case, apparently, was further action undertaken to investigate, sanction, or prevent the repetition of abuses—even those that resulted in death.

Notes

[1] See this DHS CRCL Civil Rights Complaint Flowchart, which offers limited clarification of terms used in the complaint log, for example the fields “DHS Matters – Investigation Type” and “DHS Matters – Last Action”.

[2] Our FOIA request mentioned, as an example, the ICE Air Operations charter removal flight that departed from Mesa, Arizona on April 3, 2016 in which 85 Bangladeshi, Nepali, and Indian migrants were repatriated to Bangladesh; violence aboard this flight was reported in the media at the time. An even better-known case was the failed December 2017 flight to Somalia during which deportees were subjected to verbal and physical abuse, denied access to a working restroom, and forcibly restrained for a period exceeding 24 hours. Both of these cases are referenced in the DHS CRCL complaint log released here.

[3] We have appealed this decision by ICE, in the hope that they did indeed conduct investigations but failed to provide them to us due to a lack of transparency.

[4] See UWCHR’s April 2019 report, Hidden in Plain Sight: ICE Air and the Machinery of Mass Deportation.