At the last minute yesterday, a scheduled deportation flight for at least 60 Black immigrants did not depart from Alexandria, Louisiana, for Cameroon as planned, but instead took off for Dallas without passengers.
An observer, Frances Kelley, said that she never saw anyone board the plane. Kelley works with Witness at the Border, a volunteer organization that witnesses and tracks deportations and other Immigration and Customs Enforcement movements.
Kelley was watching the tarmac from a golf cart. She said the closest she could get to the flight was a nearby golf course. Tom Cartwright, Kelley’s colleague at Witness at the Border who was tracking the flight data, confirmed that the flight left for Dallas.
“I made a reservation yesterday to golf even though I don’t golf, and we’ve been driving around at one of the holes because it was one of the best places to observe from,” Kelley said after the flight took off. “So it’s great because, you know, every other flight I’ve been a witness for has taken off and people have been deported. So it’s very exciting.”
At the time, it was unclear if the administration stepped in or why the flight was canceled. The White House deferred comment to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment.
But on Thursday afternoon, an ICE spokesperson said in a statement to the Prospect that allegations of misconduct and detainee abuse were being reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Inspector General.
Five Cameroonian asylum seekers who had protested their conditions in ICE custody last fall at Pine Prairie ICE processing center were said to be on yesterday’s flight. Their potential deportations appear to be behind the flight’s last-minute cancellation.
ICE “decided to cancel Feb. 3 [sic] flight to allow any potential victims or witnesses an opportunity to be interviewed, and will conduct an agency review of recent use-of-force reports related to individuals on this flight, and issue any additional guidance or training as deemed necessary,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The about-face comes as Alejandro Mayorkas, sworn in this week, takes the helm of DHS.
While immigrant rights advocates saw this as a victory, it’s not the only known deportation flight scheduled since Biden took office. Several other flights did take off, and another flight is scheduled for Jamaica later this month.
However, many advocates and members of Congress had been angered about this particular flight to Cameroon, a country wracked with civil strife that could pose dangers for returning asylum seekers.
Although President Joe Biden issued a 100-day moratorium on deportations, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the order. However, the judge’s ruling does not preclude Biden from deciding how to enforce immigration laws.
Advocates say Biden could order ICE not to deport asylum seekers, with the reasoning that each individual’s case must be reviewed to ensure that the United States does not violate its international treaty obligations, which prevent countries from sending migrants back where they may be persecuted.
Biden could also direct ICE to issue notices to appear to detained individuals, which would temporarily stop future deportation proceedings and mandate individuals’ release. Individuals would then finish their legal proceedings outside detention.