By Ted Hesson and Jose Luis Gonzalez
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. authorities have been flying migrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Canada border to Texas as part of a deterrence effort to tackle a rise in crossings, according to authorities, flight records and a Reuters witness.
U.S. Border Patrol has quietly transported about 100 migrants this month on two charter flights from Plattsburgh, New York, near the border with Canada, to the Texas cities of Harlingen and El Paso.
The southbound flights from the northern border are a break from past practice as the United States deals with a sharp rise in migrants crossing illegally from Canada, current and former officials told Reuters.
At the same time, asylum seekers have been crossing from the United States into Canada in record numbers, straining resources. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to raise migration issues with U.S. President Joe Biden during meetings in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday.
U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 2,900 people crossing illegally from Canada into the United States in the five months since October, more than all of fiscal year 2022. About half of those were Mexicans, who do not need a visa to travel to Canada.
Gil Kerlikowske, a former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Border Patrol’s parent agency, said he could not recall the agency using charter flights for migrants caught crossing from Canada.
“The whole northern border issue wasn’t nearly as much on the radar,” he said.
A CBP official told Reuters that 48 migrants – 47 Mexicans and one Colombian – were flown from Plattsburgh to Harlingen on March 13 to be repatriated, calling it “the consequence of crossing illegally.”
CBP did not comment on a second flight from Plattsburgh to El Paso on March 21. A Reuters witness saw about 50 migrants disembark from the plane, including men and women in shackles and three adults with a child and a baby.
CBP declined to say whether the migrants were expelled to Mexico under COVID border restrictions known as Title 42. The restrictions are set to end on May 11 along with the COVID public health emergency, but the Biden administration expanded their scope earlier this year to deter crossers.
Reuters learned of the flights from Thomas Cartwright, an advocate with the group Witness at the Border who tracks U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) charter flights, which were used to move the migrants.
Cartwright said given the relatively high cost of the flights, it appeared they were intended “as a deterrence and to send a message.”
Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union for agents, said he was informed that plans for a third flight next week were now uncertain amid cost concerns.
Regardless, Judd said the vast majority of migrants caught at the northern border are released pending an appearance in U.S. immigration court.
“That’s what caused more and more people to go to the northern border to cross into the United States,” he said.
(This story has been corrected to remove reference to flights having been previously unreported in paragraph 3 )
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Jose Luis Gonzalez in El Paso, Texas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)