Amid a crushing wave of migrants rushing the United States' southern border, overwhelmed U.S. immigration agencies are releasing "numerous" migrants not just in southern cities, but deep into the interior of the country in a revolving-door system some are concerned is giving aliens a free pass into the U.S.
With destinations like Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, Yakima, Wash., and Harrisburg, Pa., U.S. government-contracted planes transport migrants from the border and into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices around the country. These migrants are often later released from these destinations.
These flights are made by iAero Airways, which is a major government contractor. The airline also transports migrants around the country in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for children. The migrants released into the U.S. after taking these flights add up to at least tens of thousands of individuals.
Releases from ICE offices deep within US
One of the most prominent ways migrants are moved through the U.S. and often later released is through flights by ICE Air – which is what the iAero flights for ICE are known as – that transfer migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to ICE field offices throughout the country.
But those field offices have a limited capacity, and there are thousands of migrants streaming across the southern border per day.
To solve this problem, former ICE Buffalo Field Office Director Tom Feeley alleges that ICE headquarters pressures local field offices to release large numbers of migrants to clear room for more people from the border. And as more and more migrants cross the border each day and crowd facilities there, headquarters will often come back and demand yet more releases to make room for even more aliens.
"It's happening on a grand scale," Feeley said of the releases of migrants far from the southern border. "They're getting pounded every day fielding calls from headquarters about who they can release to make room for more people on the border. And the following week, they're getting more calls almost daily, again, about who can you release to make room for more people on the border."
Feeley added: "So basically all we're doing is we're catching them at the border, shipping them into the interior, releasing them and getting more and then releasing them and then getting more and releasing them."
This portrait comes as CBP migrant encounters on the border are skyrocketing, with more than 212,000 such encounters in July. President Biden's administration, meanwhile, remains under scrutiny for its handling of the border, though the focus on the issue decreased amid the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"It's a lot like a hotel chain. You know ERO can tell how many beds are open at a current facility, and then the people in charge of that aircraft will reach out to the office and say, 'You know what, you have a hundred beds open, we’re going to send you a hundred illegal aliens,'" Feeley said of the process ICE uses to release migrants from its field offices.
It's just another version of catch and release, but on a grander scale
"What's currently happening now at the headquarters level, which again has never really taken place in the past, they're actually going through the detain dockets at these facilities and picking out cases they want released to clear out beds so they can ship them more illegal aliens," Feeley added. "So it's just another version of catch and release, but on a grander scale."
And the leaders of these local field offices, Feeley said, are forced to "play the game" if they don't want to face retaliation from headquarters, which is using "fear and intimidation" to get them to do so, he alleged.
A Fox News examination of iAero's publicly available flights shows regular trips by the government contractor between airports at major immigration hubs on the border and cities in the interior of the U.S. Among the cities that were destinations for such flights were Harrisburg, Yakima, New York City and Minneapolis.
Fox News asked ICE about the influx and release of migrants from its Chicago Field Office, which appears to receive frequent flights from the border via Chicago Gary International Airport. The agency wouldn't provide the specific numbers as requested but confirmed that migrants are being released from the field office's detention facilities.
Over the past several weeks, ICE has released numerous immigrants who transferred from the border after determining they could safely be released into the community under alternate forms of supervision.
"U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has seen an increase in the number of migrants who entered from the U.S. southern border being sent to offices throughout the United States, including Chicago. Custody determinations are made on a case-by-case basis in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy and entail consideration of the merits and factors of each case while also adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates," an ICE spokesperson told Fox News.
"Furthermore, when making custody determinations, ICE considers a variety of factors, including an individual’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, health and rehabilitation efforts. Over the past several weeks, ICE has released numerous immigrants who transferred from the border after determining they could safely be released into the community under alternate forms of supervision," the spokesperson added.
An ICE official also told Fox News that the agency ensures those it releases from custody have support plans in place before they are released, and that it is coordinating with nongovernmental organizations to support these individuals.
ICE said efforts to get numbers of migrants released from individual field offices will require Freedom of Information Act requests, which Fox News has sent for numbers from Chicago, Denver, Seattle, New York and Philadelphia.
ICE did not respond to a separate request asking it to respond to Feeley's allegations. It did not respond to a request for comment asking why ICE had not acknowledged receipt of Fox News' FOIAs.
Feeley said many migrants are being released with instructions to simply check in with ICE via phone once per month before a hearing that could be many months or even years in the future. In that time, he noted, the migrants may have children – a development which may make them far harder to deport in the future. Feeley also alleged that many of the migrants are COVID-19-positive when they are released into the community.
CBP flights to Tucson, San Diego and El Paso
Feeley also detailed a novel arrangement in which CBP is putting aliens on ICE Air flights and shipping them to centers in Tucson, Ariz.; San Diego and El Paso, Texas. The migrants remain in CBP custody rather than ICE custody on the flights before they arrive in those cities, where they are processed by Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) and then released.
Feeley said that between March and August, nearly 23,000 migrants were released like this.
"CBP in the Rio Grande Valley is placing illegal aliens that have just arrived on ICE aircraft, keeping them in CBP custody, and shipping them to other cities still in CBP custody – and then being processed by ERO personnel who are being detailed and not doing their interior law enforcement duties," Feeley said. "And then those illegal aliens are being released into the United States."
Feeley said the arrangement was rather unprecedented. But a source did tell Fox News that CBP used ICE Air in a similar way briefly in 2019 when there was also a border surge – though not on such a large scale as it is being used now.
A CBP spokesman appeared to confirm the arrangement in a vague statement to Fox News while still insisting that the border is closed.
The border is not open and CBP is still operating under Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Several Border Patrol Sectors have seen a significant increase in encounters in recent months. In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, unprocessed individuals may be transported via air or ground transportation to other Sectors along the Southwest border," the spokesperson said. "The operational need for these sector-to-sector transfers is assessed daily based on the processing capability and facility capacity of each sector and not by external influences."
The spokesperson added: "The border is not open and CBP is still operating under Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic. CBP is making every effort to remain within CDC guidelines and mitigate long periods of processing and holding to minimize potential exposure to our workforce, those in custody, and the community. Once processing is complete, these individuals will be expeditiously transferred out of CBP custody."
HHS flights with children
Many local outlets around the country have reported that mysterious flights of aircraft apparently contracted by the government are flying into their cities at odd hours with children from the border. Indeed, two GOP governors earlier this year demanded transparency from the Biden administration about the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) bringing unaccompanied children into their states to be unified with their sponsors.
HHS told Fox News earlier this year that its mission "is to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be unified with a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close relative."
"As part of the unification process, ORR is currently facilitating travel for the children in ORR’s custody to their sponsors to prevent any delays. Their parents and relatives are located across the United States (U.S.), and ORR contractors use various transportation modes to unite unaccompanied children with their families," the statement said. "These modes include air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, travel time, and cost-effectiveness."
According to the HHS website, more than 75,000 children have been released throughout the country this fiscal year. But, according to an Axios report, the government has lost contact with nearly one-third of them.
HHS did not return a request for comment about its transportation of migrant children around the country.
Fox News' Adam Shaw contributed to this report.