Fact checking GOP warnings of immigrant ‘ghost flights’

‘Ghost flight’

Beginning in late December, Republicans running for these offices began releasing statements and making appearances on primarily conservative media outlets, raising alarms about what they were calling “ghost flights.”

The furor seems to have started with Lou Barletta, a former Luzerne County congressman now running for governor who once, as mayor of Hazleton, tried to make English the city’s official language amid an immigration wave. He also pushed an ordinance that would have barred undocumented immigrants in the city from being hired or renting housing. That ordinance never took effect. A federal judge blocked it immediately and it was ultimately thrown out.

Barletta has repeatedly called the flights “secret” and alleged that the Biden administration was hiding their arrival.

In recent weeks, nearly every other major GOP candidate running for governor has jumped on board.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano wrote an op-ed hypothesizing about “added costs for the community and increases in taxes” if immigrant children stay in Luzerne County indefinitely. Jake Corman, the state Senate’s most powerful Republican, sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf saying he’d heard about “minors in ICE custody, potentially including illegal immigrants” and wanted answers. HVAC company owner Dave White invoked “spikes in crime and COVID-19 infections spreading” as reasons to cut down on immigration, and Bill McSwain, a former US attorney, said the so-called “ghost flights” are a “slap in the face to Pennsylvanians.

The rhetoric in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary has been the same: short on provable facts, long on inflammatory statements.

TV doctor Mehmet Oz went on Fox News to say that “every state is truly a border state.” Real estate developer Jeff Bartos claimed immigrants are entering the US “without proper vetting or COVID testing.” Investment firm CEO Carla Sands wrote that the Biden administration is making Pennsylvania “a border state off the taxpayer’s dime.”

Several of these candidates have called for delicensing organizations that house immigrant kids, like Texas and Florida are trying to do.

GOP officials are also suggesting these immigrants will sway elections in favor of Democrats, continuing unfounded election-fraud lies.

US Rep Dan Meuser — who is not running for higher office, but is often rumored to be interested — has been a major proponent of these theories. The same week his office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue, the congressman went on a conservative radio talk show to share details about his discussions with the federal government.

Meuser used the platform to push the unfounded idea that either the minors or other undocumented immigrants are being purposefully imported to affect electoral politics.

“We have an administration that is deliberately bringing them across because one of the reasons is they want to make Texas go from red to blue,” Meuser said on air.

‘They protect children’s information’

“Ghost flight” is a mysterious-sounding name for a routine part of a US immigration system that has specific rules about caring for undocumented children who arrive in the country.

Essey Workie, who spent a decade at HHS working on refugee resettlement and now works for the Migration Policy Institute, notes that whenever a child is apprehended by Border Patrol and is determined to be unaccompanied, ICE has 72 hours to get them to an Office of Refugee Resettlement Funded Shelter.

“So there’s transportation … from the initial apprehension, to the shelter facility in other parts of the US,” Workie said. “Even once a child is in a shelter, there may be additional travel to other shelter centers, or releases to sponsors and parents.”

These shelters are all over the country. Pennsylvania, for instance, has dozens of them. Between 2014 and October 2021, just under 6,500 undocumented minors were released into the custody of a sponsor in Pennsylvania — about 1.5% of all the released minors in the country. The vast majority of these children went to Philadelphia or its collar counties.

The specific series of flights that the candidates are talking about, which traveled from Texas to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport and the Lehigh Valley International Airport in Pennsylvania in late December, were chartered by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Elizabeth Reenter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf, confirmed to Fox News that three Wilkes-Barre flights had been HHS charters, that they were transporting children, and that those children were “en route to their final destination to be unified with their parents or vetted sponsor,” not being resettled in Pennsylvania. The Lehigh airport gave the New York Post similar information: that the flights were from HHS.

HHS declined to provide more specific information on the flights, the children, and their ultimate destination. But immigration lawyer Justin Mixon, who has represented unaccompanied minors for the past seven years and previously given immigrants legal advice at Philly-based nonprofit HIAS Pennsylvania, says there are good reasons for that reticence.

“The idea that [politicians] should have access to the children’s names or where they’re from, or their birth dates or anything like that – that’s insane,” Mixon said.

Keeping that information private protects the children, he said.

Nagda added, “In this age of people feeling emboldened to protest outside of children’s facilities, or call attention to places where kids are in custody, I think it would be quite dangerous to make that level of information about children public.”

Barletta and other candidates have theorized that the HHS flights that entered Pennsylvania could have potentially been carrying adults, too. But this, Nagda said, can be easily disproven: HHS would never have custody of adults.

“In fact, if HHS has an unaccompanied child in their custody, the day that child turns 18 and that child hasn’t been approved for release to a family member, that child will be transferred to [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and put in ICE detention,” she said. “They take the age of adulthood very seriously.”

It’s also unlikely that any undocumented children in US federal custody pose any more COVID-19 risk than the average American. The federal government has a detailed list of protocols in regards to screening and releasing minors into the country. That includes multiple COVID-19 tests during processing, and vaccinating any child age five and older.

“Children who are infectious with communicable diseases of public health concern, which have potential to cause outbreaks, will not be released from ORR care until they are non-infectious,” one of the guidance documents says.

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