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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 16, 2022

Claims that Biden is ‘secretly’ flying immigrants into U.S. cities ignore key facts

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  • The federal government transports adult detainees in its custody from one facility to another, or from one U.S. city to another during deportation proceedings.

  • The vast majority of people on the flights are unaccompanied minors who crossed the border, requested asylum under immigration law, and are being released from federal custody to a parent or sponsor.

  • Some of these flights happen at night, but they are not covert operations. The same types of flights were done by the Trump administration.

Republicans campaigning for office are running ads that hammer President Joe Biden’s management of the U.S.-Mexico border. They claim that the administration is using planes to fly "illegal immigrants" around the country.

Republican Tyler Kistner, making his second consecutive campaign for a U.S. House seat in Minnesota, made his claim about skullduggery in the dark.

Biden "has been secretly flying illegal immigrants into communities across the country in the middle of the night," his ad on Facebook and Instagram claimed.

Other Republicans have run social media ads making similar claims. They include Lisa Scheller, who is running for a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania; Jake Corman, who is running for Pennsylvania governor; U.S. Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson of Iowa.

Experts said the vast majority of people trying to cross the southern border into the United States are summarily turned back. Exceptions are made for unaccompanied minors, some of whom are transported by planes to be with relatives or approved sponsors — a practice also done during the Trump administration. 

How the process works

Kistner’s campaign did not reply to our requests for information to support his claim.

Two law professors and directors of immigrants’ rights clinics, Fatma Marouf at Texas A&M University School of Law and Nicole Hallett at the University of Chicago Law School, walked us through the process.

Because of a public health law known as Title 42, invoked at the start of the pandemic by the Trump administration and continued under Biden, the vast majority of migrants are turned back and not given the opportunity to make their case for why they should be allowed to stay.

Those encountered at the border who have been allowed to remain are, by and large, unaccompanied minors. They typically are taken first to facilities near the border and then transferred to the temporary custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services department, which eventually places the children with family or sponsors in the U.S. If family members or approved sponsors are not able to arrange transportation, the federal government pays for transportation, including flights. 

The charter flights are not publicized and sometimes are done in the middle of the night to protect the confidentiality of those being transported and to guard against anyone who would interfere with the flights.

Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, have complained that they were not notified about the flights and U.S. House members from New York asked the Biden administration to stop such flights to their state.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker reported that sometimes the federal government tries to save money by arranging for flights that land late in the evening.

Most unaccompanied minors turn themselves in to border authorities and by doing so are "actually following the rules of seeking asylum," said Marouf.

ICE Air Operations is the air transportation arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for the detention and deportation of immigrants.

The Biden administration, like the Obama and Trump administrations, uses flights to move adult detainees from one detention facility to another in order to avoid overcrowding. If some of those flights occur at night, it’s not necessarily indicative of something nefarious or covert going on, as the ad suggests.

News reports, including some in Florida and Pennsylvania, have made clear that the process is routine and occurred under the Trump administration, as well.

Mexican nationals ordered for deportation from the United States travel on domestic flights from various U.S. cities to southern cities such as San Diego, California and Brownsville, Texas, and are then bused to the U.S.-Mexico border for removal at a land port of entry, ICE said in August 2020.

Neither ICE nor the Health and Human Services Department responded to requests for comment for this fact-check.

The White House cited one of several statements it has made in response to such claims. A reporter on Oct. 19 asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki: "Why is the administration flying thousands of migrants from the border to Florida and New York in the middle of the night?"

Psaki said: "It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they swiftly — can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor. And that’s something we take seriously; we have a moral obligation to come to do that and deliver on that.

"As a part of the unification process, our Office of Refugee Resettlement facilitates travel for children in its custody to their families or sponsors across the country. So, in recent weeks, unaccompanied children passed through the Westchester (N.Y.) airport, which I think is what you’re referring to, en route to their final destination to be unified with their parents or a vetted sponsor.

"It’s no surprise that kids can be seen traveling through states, not just New York.  It’s something that we’re also working to unite children with their family members or vetted sponsors in other parts of the country as well."

How the race plays into House control

Kistner, an ex-Marine, is running against Democratic Rep. Angie Craig, who was first elected in 2018 to the 2nd District seat, which represents part of southeast Minnesota. 

Craig defeated Kistner in 2020 by 48% to 46%. Campaign watchers rate their rematch as "Democratic toss up", "tilt Democratic" and toss up

Democrats have an 11-seat advantage in the House.

Our ruling

Kistner said Biden "has been secretly flying illegal immigrants into communities across the country in the middle of the night."

The ad implies that it is a new phenomenon for the federal government to transport immigrants around the country. That’s not true. 

The federal government flies adult detainees in its custody from one facility to another, or from one U.S. city to another during deportation proceedings. The U.S. government in some cases also flies unaccompanied children who are being released from its custody to a family member or sponsor.

Some of these flights may happen at night, but they are not covert operations. The same types of routine flights were done by the Trump administration.

The ad contains only an element of truth. We rate it Mostly False.

RELATED: Fact-checking Ron DeSantis’ claim that a U.S. process doesn't vet immigrants

Our Sources

Meta, Tyler Kistner ad on flying illegal immigrants, started running Feb. 22, 2022; active as of March 15, 2022

PolitiFact, "No proof of immigrant drop-offs in Charlotte suburb," Feb. 8, 2022

Washington Post Fact Checker, "Claims of ‘ghost flights’ of ‘illegal immigrants’ don’t add up," Feb. 4, 2022

WHYY, "Pa. GOP primary candidates warn of immigrant ‘ghost flights,’ but lack facts and context," Jan. 14, 2022

Interview, Nicole Hallett, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, March 11, 2022

Interview, Fatma Marouf, professor of law and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University School of Law, March 14, 2022

Email, Michelle Mittelstadt, spokesperson for the Migration Policy Institute, March 11, 2022

Los Angeles Times, "Title 42 explained: The obscure public health policy at the center of a U.S. border fight," Oct. 25, 2021

CNN, "DeSantis claims Biden running 'clandestine' flights to send migrants to Florida, but the routine transport also occurred under Trump," Nov. 17, 2021

Fox News, "ICE to hire contractor to transport 225,000 migrants to shelters across the US," May 18, 2019

New York Times, "Trump Administration Flying Migrants Out of Texas to Ease Overcrowding at Border," May 17, 2019

Immigration Impact, "Biden’s ‘Secret’ Flights of Migrants Debunked as a Routine Part of the US Immigration System," Feb. 2, 2022 

Email, White House spokesperson Vedant Patel, March 15, 2022

The White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki, October 19, 2021," Oct. 19, 2021

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Claims that Biden is ‘secretly’ flying immigrants into U.S. cities ignore key facts

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