Where Sports and Deportation Meet: ICE Is Removing People on the Same Planes Used to Transport Teams

Image: University of Washington Center for Human Rights.

On June 17 a plane painted with the red, white, and blue colors of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots lifted off from Harlingen, Texas. This plane, however, wasn’t going to deliver the football team to a game. It was crossing the Gulf of Mexico, en route to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on a deportation flight. This would be the plane’s (tail no. N225NE) fourth and final deportation run that week. According to Sports Aviation, a Twitter account that tracks the flights of sports teams, the plane had been used in January to fly the Patriots to a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.

Now, instead of brawny football players enjoying a state-of-the-art entertainment system with spacious seats, the plane was filled with people shackled at their wrists, around their waists, squeezing their ankles. To go to the bathroom, people had to shuffle and navigate the chains and cuffs. They had to hunch down to eat. A plane for a top football team had been converted into an airborne prison.

The plane, as described in this video, is the team’s backup (they have two planes). But even though the Patriots seem to own the plane, they do not run it. It is run by a charter company called Eastern. And Eastern does business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The University of Washington Center for Human Rights, an organization that has been keeping a close eye on deportation flights for a few years, wrote about it in a Twitter thread in June.

Sociologist Angelina Godoy, who is director of the center, told me that the point of bringing attention to this connection between the Patriots and deportation flights was not to shame the athletes or even the team (who probably didn’t know), but to show that the “businesses that profit from deportation are very close to our favorite athletes and entertainers,” a powerful yet hidden reality. And the issue goes well beyond the Patriots, as Godoy demonstrates in the report Abuses in the Air: Sports Travel and the Deportation Industry. The report, published in June, offers a wealth of information that makes these connections across many teams and several different airlines.

From August 2021 to August 2022, ICE Air Operations operated 7,911 flights, as documented by retired financial executive Thomas Cartwright of the organization Witness at the Border. ICE Air is the agency’s plane fleet, according to a DHS fact sheet, which “facilitate[s] the movement of noncitizens within the United States and the removal of noncitizens to destinations worldwide.” And since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, 11,011 such flights (and 16,117 since the beginning of 2020, when Donald Trump was at the helm). To broker such flights, ICE issued a $727.3 million contract to Classic Air Charter in 2017 (set to expire this month) to hire charter airlines like Eastern. But Eastern is one of many companies in the business, and the Patriots only one team.

Take, for example, the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. The plane the team used extensively was an Omni Airlines plane that did regular deportation flights to Somalia (flight tail number N207AX. To note, Omni began hiding its tail numbers after 2018). This would include the 2017 Somalia-bound deportation flight that rerouted to Senegal, where it sat on the tarmac for hours before returning to the United States for logistical reasons. Ninety-two Somalis remained shackled during the whole 40-hour odyssey. Passengers reported that they “suffered beatings, threats, forced straitjacketing, and the denial of access to working bathrooms, forcing some to soil their seats.”

During Omni’s deportation flights to Africa, ICE has used a full-body restraint device known as the Wrap. One man said that he was in the painful device for nine hours, and when he was finally let out, “there were open sores on my wrists where the ICE cuffs had cut into my skin.”

Omni, under the contract in which the buck stops with ICE, has also deported people to places where their lives are threatened like Cameroon, while charging the U.S. government up to $1.8 million per flight.

There have been similar incidents with the airline Swift/iAero, whose deportation planes have carried basketball teams from the University of Virginia, Penn State, and Syracuse. On the very plane that carried these teams to their games and tournaments, there have been cases of asylum seekers who were killed after their deportations, like Camila Diaz—a Salvadoran trans woman who attempted to secure safety in the U.S. in 2017 but was deported on a Swift/iAero flight on November 22, 2017 (tail no. N418US). Ronald Acevedo, a Salvadoran man, was deported one week after Diaz on the same plane, after DHS rejected his asylum plea. Days after his deportation he was found dead in the trunk of a car with signs of torture, wrapped in white sheets.

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights has identified four distinct patterns of abuse in these ICE Air Operations: (1) nonrefoulment, or deporting people back to places where their lives are in danger; (2) torture by U.S. officials; (3) no due process (from October 2010 to May 2020, 10,923 people were deported even though they had pending appeals, and during that same time 778,528 people were deported without seeing a judge at all); and (4) double punishment (people are punished twice for the same crime, once by the criminal justice system and then again by ICE, sometimes years after the first punishment was completed).

The planes themselves can be drastically and quickly altered, from deportation to sports. On December 18, 2021, a Swift/iAero plane (tail no. N625SW) flew a deportation flight from San Antonio to Mexico City before returning to fly the Butler Bulldogs basketball team from Oklahoma to Indianapolis. This same plane has run deportation flights to Haiti when it isn’t transporting other top-notch college basketball teams, such as those from the University of Arkansas, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and the University of Texas.

Plane alterations go from people in shackles and devices like the Wrap to “Omni Class,” with lie-flat seating and an oversized tray to “accommodate a multi-course gourmet meal,” as well as “entertainment systems equipped with 15.6 HD screens to give passengers access to the latest theatrical releases, games and music.” In February, Swift/iAero inaugurated its “ultra luxurious”service, and its first client was the Houston Rockets of the NBA.

In January, when the Patriots sat with spacious seating and other amenities on their way to the playoff game, they probably didn’t know that it would be deporting people to Honduras in June. How many shackled Hondurans were on the June 17 flight in the same plane? We don’t know, because ICE doesn’t reveal data about individual flights. The border manifests itself both powerfully and invisibly in the most unexpected places. Many of us don’t know it’s there to begin with. In the case of the Patriot’s plane, it has not appeared again since that week in June, and probably won’t since the NFL season started last week.

Eastern, the airline that runs the Patriots planes, was involved with the mass deportation of Haitians after thousands arrived to the U.S.-Mexico border a year ago. ICE issued a special $15 million contract to the private prison company Geo Group to arrange deportation flights to Haiti (one of many contracts this company has with ICE), even though it owns no planes. As The Border Chronicle reported on Tuesday, GEO Group is also a top donor to the Republican Governors Association, which funnels money to authoritarian border hawks like Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake. In this, the charter airline companies have found a home in the multibillion-dollar border and immigration industrial complex, composed of a broad swath of corporations, including tech, construction, and prison companies like GEO Group.

For ICE Air, business looks like it will continue to grow. In August there were 686 deportation flights, according to Witness at the Border’s Cartwright. While deportations to Haiti have gone down, Cartwright has noticed an uptick in flights to both Colombia, “one every weekday,” and Peru, “once a week.” The top destinations remain Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. “It’s all about deterrence,” Cartwright told me, referring to the United States’ long-term border strategy.

In a 2009 article titled “America’s Secret ICE Castles,” sociologist Jacqueline Stevens writes about 186 unmarked ICE facilities across the country, some located in strip malls and office complexes. Such places seem so normal to everyday life in the United States, one wouldn’t suspect that they are government sites where armed federal authorities detain and interrogate people. In the article, Stevens quotes Natalie Jeremijenko, a professor of visual arts at New York University, who called it “twisted genius” to hide federal agents in a place like the Chelsea High Line in New York City, which she calls a “worldwide center of visuality and public space.”

The deportation planes have a similar dynamic. On the one hand, government accountability is evaded “behind layers of private contracts.” On the other hand, as Godoy made clear to me in our interview, there is a “juxtaposition” of planes used to transport our favorite teams, and even offer luxury travel and gourmet dinners, while other flights have shackled people deprived of dignity and expelled against their will.

When I watched the playoff game in January, in which my favorite team, the Buffalo Bills, beat the Patriots 47-17, I was among millions of viewers, most of whom weren’t aware of these connections between sports planes and deportations (myself included). But the border and immigration enforcement apparatus is not something so distant from the greater public, Godoy told me. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “and realize the degree to which many athletes and entertainers we love are making deportations possible by patronizing the very businesses that carry them out, although other transportation options are available.”

This originally appeared on The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.