FIRST ON FOX: Border sheriffs are slamming the Biden administration over reports of "secret flights" of illegal immigrants being conducted by government contractors, calling it "government-sanctioned human trafficking."
Fox News reported this week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations have been turned into an "unofficial travel coordination agency," and agents are made to coordinate travel for some illegal immigrants with criminal records.
An ICE source told Fox News Digital that the agency is now releasing migrants with misdemeanor crimes such as assault, DUI, drug possession and illegal re-entry, and only withholding those with serious felonies.
Additionally, Fox News footage from Sunday showed several federally contracted buses dropping off dozens of mostly male migrants at a parking garage in Brownsville, Texas, after crossing the border with a cartel smuggler. The migrants also said they were flying to destinations including Miami, Houston and Atlanta.
Cochise County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Dannels told Fox News Digital that this is "willful neglect" by the administration, which is leaving the country vulnerable to criminal exploitation.
"These covert transports only serves a political ideology by this administration that erodes the trust of Americans. This 'willful' neglect leaves our border communities and country vulnerable and exposed to criminal exploitation by violent criminal cartels."
"In my 37 years of law enforcement service, I have never experienced this form of non-collective messaging and defiance regarding our rule of law by our federal leaders and members of U.S. Congress who share the same oath of office to protect Americans and this great nation! I stand united with my fellow Sheriffs who uphold their oath of office in enforcing the rule of law and protecting our communities," continued Dannels.
Jackson County, Texas, Sheriff A.J. Louderback says the situation is "beyond serious" and there must be an investigation into the situation, which he says is "government-sanctioned human trafficking."
"[This is] beyond serious – been occurring for months – only getting worse," said Louderback. "[It's] government-sanctioned human trafficking. This is all Biden policy! The have engineered planned, strategize, and implemented the largest organized transfer of illegal immigrants into the U.S. at the taxpayer expense. CRIMINAL BETRAYAL! Investigation immediate!y!" he told Fox News Digital in a statement,
On Friday, the White House denied that there are "secret flights."
A White House official said in a statement that individuals who are not expelled under Title 42 are relocated into the interior of the U.S. and monitored with an ankle bracelet, or similar technology. In addition, 80% of illegal immigrants released from DHS custody have a Notice to Appear and are required to check in at a local ICE office, said the official.
The official continued, "Separately – there are no such things as secret flights. The video footage your network has been running endlessly is from six months ago in August. Which by the way, Jen [Psaki] and others in the administration addressed this then too. Not new or news. The footage is of unaccompanied minors being transported. Either to a vetted relative or two a sponsor, and yes they passed through Westchester County, NY en route to their final destination. It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor. As part of the unification process, the Office of Refugee Resettlement facilitates travel for the children in its custody to their family or sponsors across the country."
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) focuses its civil immigration enforcement priorities on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who pose a threat to national security, border security, and public safety," an ICE spokesperson told Fox News Digital on Friday.
"ICE does not transport noncitizens into the interior of the U.S. for release, nor does it pay for the transportation of noncitizens who are released. ICE transports single adult noncitizens for purposes of detention, transport for medical purposes, staging for removal from the country, or transport to a point of release near a detention facility."
The ICE website notes that 97% released from ICE custody in fiscal year 2022 have no criminal history and ICE officers arrested more than 12,200 noncitizens in the first quarter of that fiscal year.
There were more than 178,000 migrant apprehensions in December, coming on the back of a year that saw more than 212,000 monthly encounters at one point in the crisis.
Fox News' Adam Shaw and Bill Melugin contributed to this report.