Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Officials ramp up ‘airline’ for illegal immigrants

More deportees leads to ‘ICE Air’

Illegal immigrants board a plane at Tucson International Airport in July 2007. The immigrants were flown back to  Mexico as part of a repatriation program.

Illegal immigrants board a plane at Tucson International Airport in July 2007. The immigrants were flown back to Mexico as part of a repatriation program.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – While U.S. airlines downsize and scrimp on amenities, one carrier is offering its passengers leather seats, ample legroom and free food. But frequent fliers probably don’t want a ticket on what may be the fastest growing “airline” serving Central America.

This carrier is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for finding and deporting undocumented immigrants. A crackdown on illegal immigration has led to a spike in deportations and the creation of a de facto airline to send the deportees home.


The air service, called Repatriate by air-traffic controllers, is known simply as ICE Air to agency employees. Its planes have headrests emblazoned with ICE’s name and seal. In-flight service is polite.

“For a lot of these immigrants, it has been a long journey to the U.S.,” said Michael J. Pitts, chief of flight operations for deportations and removals at ICE. “This is going to be the last impression they have of the United States. We want to provide good service.”

Pitts, a former military pilot, said ICE Air operates much like a commercial carrier, flying passengers to hub cities where they connect to international flights. But those hub cities – such as Mesa, and Alexandria, La., which are close to illegal-immigrant detention sites – are relatively obscure. And the final destinations are primarily in Latin America, including up to three flights daily to Guatemala City and two to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Pitts also recently launched service to the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.

In all, the U.S. government deports people to more than 190 countries. Outside of Mexico, ICE flew home 76,102 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 72,187 last year and 50,222 two years ago.

Average bill is $620

ICE Air’s patrons are what the airline industry calls “nonrevenue passengers,” since Washington foots the bill at $620 a person on average for the one-way flight home. The agency now flies 10 aircraft, twice as many as last year, including leased and government jets.

From Kansas City, Pitts’ team coordinates with 24 ICE field offices and monitors all flights. Recently staffers tracked seven ICE Air flights to Central America on an electronic wall map. Three schedulers worked the phones and e-mailed frantically to place immigrants on future flights.

“We have 30 El Salvadoran aliens ready to be removed,” an official at an Arizona detention facility said by phone. Patty Ridley checked her roster and confirmed the seats on a flight scheduled to leave Mesa for San Salvador two weeks later.

Like mainstream carriers, ICE knows it gets more bang for the buck if it can fill every seat, so it doesn’t schedule any flight until it has a critical mass of deportees. “We are making a valiant attempt to overbook,” said Pitts. Sometimes passengers get bumped, he said, “to make room for priority cases.” Those might be convicted criminals who are wanted by their country or individuals eager to get home due to a family emergency.

Before dawn on a recent day, supervisor Rosemarie Williams gathered 13 crew members – unarmed contract security personnel who double as flight attendants – at a civilian airstrip to brief them on “RPN 742,” scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. from Laredo, Texas, to Guatemala City.

The swanky Boeing 737-800, leased from Miami Air International, had 172 brown leather seats and a single-class configuration.

Each passenger is entitled to 40 pounds of luggage, which is carefully labeled. The tag on a big, black duffel bag loaded onto the flight to Guatemala listed the following contents: microwave, toys, VCR and an electric saw. “We don’t charge them for bringing more because many passengers have only a couple of pounds to their name,” said Pat Reilly, an ICE spokeswoman. Most people trying to sneak into the U.S. carry only a backpack.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service