EXCLUSIVE: Video shows asylum-seekers boarding deportation flights from South Texas to Central America

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — Two charter planes full of asylum-seekers departed Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport early this morning — one headed for Guatemala — after the migrants were frisked and loaded in chains onto the planes in a process that officials did not want filmed or documented.

Starting at 6:30 a.m., Border Report and KVEO-TV captured footage of the deportees brought in three buses and a van being led onto the plane on the tarmac. One plane, operated by Swift Air, left at 8 a.m. for Gary Indiana and Chicago International Airport. The other plane, operated by World Atlantic Airlines, left five minutes later for Guatemala City, Guatemala, according to the plane tail numbers listed on the app FlightAware.

Agents wearing bright yellow vests frisked the migrants and guarded them as they were loaded two or four at a time up the stairs and onto the plane. Dozens of migrants, including women, boarded the airplanes, but it is uncertain how many.

Border Report has asked the Department of Homeland Security’s media office in Washington, D.C., for flight confirmation information but they have not responded. Several inquiries also have been sent to the office this past week requesting to ride with a deportation flight, as well as requests for information on the number of deportation flights that have been departing from South Texas since the Trump administration signed the Asylum Cooperative Agreement (ACA) with several Central American countries beginning last November.

The U.S. has ACA agreements to send deportees to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — these countries comprise an area called the Northern Triangle where most of the asylum-seekers who try to migrate to South Texas hail from.

Read about the ACLU’s lawsuit to challenge ACA.

The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the legality of these agreements, which appear to have stepped up the number of deportation flights lately in South Texas where another policy, called Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) is also expediting deportations.

Read a Border Report story on PACR implemented in South Texas

Reporters ordered to leave airport

On Friday morning, Brownsville airport security guards repeatedly told Border Report and KVEO that filming was not allowed in the vicinity, and gave conflicting information on where journalists could be located. At first, they said journalists must stand 10-feet back from a razor-wire rimmed chain link fence; they later said 30 feet back. Then they said journalists could not be on the property at all and must be on a public road. Brownsville police were called and they made Border Report leave the property.

Before police arrived, in order to obstruct any visuals from the plane loading, two oil tankers were driven in front of the plane to block the view. A small van and another vehicle also were parked at the fence line. And the migrants were loaded from the other side of the plane.

Border Report could see shackled feet and arms in handcuffs hanging down as the migrants walked from buses onto the planes, but no faces. Orange-vested workers also could be seen throwing white garbage bags full of the migrants’ belongings into the hull of the planes. KVEO filmed from a public roadway a mile away with a high-powered lens and was able to see migrants as they boarded the planes.

Joshua Rubin, leader of the group Witness at the Border, watches a charter plane on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, that was loaded with migrants bound for Guatemala at the Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport in South Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“This obviously is being deliberately done and it’s sneaky,” said Joshua Rubin, leader of the group Witness at the Border, which has been leading a vigil in Brownsville since Jan. 12, to oppose the Migrant Protection Protocols program that forces asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico during their U.S. asylum hearings.

For the past week, Rubin and several from his group, have begun frequenting the Brownsville airport in the dark, early-morning hours, watching buses full of migrants loaded onto planes. On Thursday, he said, agents began loading migrants behind vehicles in a clandestine effort to limit visibility.

The charter flights are not listed on a flight manifest until just a couple hours prior to departure, however, so Rubin and his group check the FlightAware app beginning at 2 a.m. to find potential flights.

“These planes land here very early in the morning and are listed very late at night,” Rubin said. “They’re trying to give us as little notice as possible.”

Rubin said earlier this week he saw a group of “parents, women and babies” getting on a flight to Honduras.

“I don’t know how anyone with a conscience could drive a bus or try to block our view,” said Ann Finch, of Austin, former board president for the nonprofit organization Team Brownsville, which has been feeding and providing tents and clothes and supplies for the past year to the thousands of migrants who live in a refugee camp while they await their asylum proceedings in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville.

A report released released Wednesday by the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch found that 138 people who had been deported to El Salvador from 2014-18 were subsequently killed.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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