Pa. GOP primary candidates warn of immigrant ‘ghost flights,’ but lack facts and context

The rhetoric among Pennsylvania’s GOP candidates for Senate and governor has been the same: short on provable facts, long on inflammatory rhetoric.

Listen 2:29
A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle drives along the border fence

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle drives along the border fence at the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Douglas, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

By the time Jennifer Nagda’s organization starts working with clients, many of them have escaped abuse or persecution, traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, spent time in Border Patrol custody, and been shuttled around the U.S., often by people who don’t speak their language.

On average, they’re about 15 or 16 years old.

Nagda is based in Philadelphia and works for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. The group advocates for minors who are unaccompanied, or separated from their parents, when they arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum.

Their situations sometimes haunt her. One 16-year-old girl Nagda worked with was sex- trafficked repeatedly across the southern border. When the girl’s trafficker was arrested and put on federal trial in the U.S., the girl had to decide whether to testify. There was a possibility it could put her family, back in her home country, at risk.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

These labyrinthine cases take a lot of time and energy. But Nagda says she and other immigration lawyers also spend time thinking about another factor that looms over their work: politics.

“These are the kids that the right seems to be very concerned with,” she said. “Wanting to know their whereabouts, and who they are.”

Nagda is referring to a recent trend of Republican politicians pushing back against migrant children being temporarily housed in shelters in their states. Last year, governors in Texas, then Florida, directed their states’ child care regulators to stop issuing, or rescind licenses to facilities that house undocumented kids.

Now, as high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor heat up, the movement has spread to Pennsylvania.

‘Ghost flights’

Beginning in late December, Republicans running for these offices began releasing statements and making appearances on primarily conservative media outlets, raising alarms about what they were calling “ghost flights.”

The furor seems to have started with Lou Barletta, a former Luzerne County congressman now running for governor who once, as mayor of Hazleton, tried to make English the city’s official language amid an immigration wave. He also pushed an ordinance that would have barred undocumented immigrants in the city from being hired or renting housing. That ordinance never took effect. A federal judge blocked it immediately and it was ultimately thrown out.

Barletta has repeatedly called the flights “secret” and alleged that the Biden administration was hiding their arrival.

In recent weeks, nearly every other major GOP candidate running for governor has jumped on board.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

State Sen. Doug Mastriano wrote an op-ed hypothesizing about “added costs for the community and increases in taxes” if immigrant children stay in Luzerne County indefinitely. Jake Corman, the state Senate’s most powerful Republican, sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf saying he’d heard about “minors in ICE custody, potentially including illegal immigrants” and wanted answers. HVAC company owner Dave White invoked “spikes in crime and COVID-19 infections spreading” as reasons to cut down on immigration, and Bill McSwain, a former U.S. attorney, said the so-called “ghost flights” are a “slap in the face” to Pennsylvanians.

The rhetoric in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary has been the same: short on provable facts, long on inflammatory statements.

TV doctor Mehmet Oz went on Fox News to say that ​​“every state is truly a border state.” Real estate developer Jeff Bartos claimed immigrants are entering the U.S. “without proper vetting or COVID testing.” Investment firm CEO Carla Sands wrote that the Biden administration is making Pennsylvania “a border state off the taxpayer’s dime.”

Several of these candidates have called for delicensing organizations that house immigrant kids, like Texas and Florida are trying to do.

GOP officials are also suggesting these immigrants will sway elections in favor of Democrats, continuing unfounded election-fraud lies.

U.S. Rep Dan Meuser — who is not running for higher office, but is often rumored to be interested — has been a major proponent of these theories. The same week his office did not respond to requests for comment on the issue, the congressman went on a conservative radio talk show to share details about his discussions with the federal government.

Meuser used the platform to push the unfounded idea that either the minors or other undocumented immigrants are being purposefully imported to affect electoral politics.

“We have an administration that is deliberately bringing them across because one of the reasons is they want to make Texas go from red to blue,” Meuser said on air.

‘They protect children’s information’

“Ghost flight” is a mysterious-sounding name for a routine part of a U.S. immigration system that has specific rules about caring for undocumented children who arrive in the country.

Essey Workie, who spent a decade at HHS working on refugee resettlement and now works for the Migration Policy Institute, notes that whenever a child is apprehended by Border Patrol and is determined to be unaccompanied, ICE has 72 hours to get them to an Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded shelter.

“So there’s transportation … from the initial apprehension, to the shelter facility in other parts of the U.S.,” Workie said. “Even once a child is in a shelter, there may be additional travel to other shelter centers, or releases to sponsors and parents.”

These shelters are all over the country. Pennsylvania, for instance, has dozens of them. Between 2014 and October 2021, just under 6,500 undocumented minors were released into the custody of a sponsor in Pennsylvania — about 1.5% of all the released minors in the country. The vast majority of these children went to Philadelphia or its collar counties.

The specific series of flights that the candidates are talking about, which traveled from Texas to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport and the Lehigh Valley International Airport in Pennsylvania in late December, were chartered by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf, confirmed to Fox News that three Wilkes-Barre flights had been HHS charters, that they were transporting children, and that those children were “en route to their final destination to be unified with their parents or vetted sponsor,” not being resettled in Pennsylvania. The Lehigh airport gave the New York Post similar information: that the flights were from HHS.

HHS declined to provide more specific information on the flights, the children, and their ultimate destination. But immigration lawyer Justin Mixon, who has represented unaccompanied minors for the past seven years and previously given immigrants legal advice at Philly-based nonprofit HIAS Pennsylvania, says there are good reasons for that reticence.

“The idea that [politicians] should have access to the children’s names or where they’re from, or their birth dates or anything like that – that’s insane,” Mixon said.

Keeping that information private protects the children, he said.

Nagda added, “In this age of people feeling emboldened to protest outside of children’s facilities, or call attention to places where kids are in custody, I think it would be quite dangerous to make that level of information about children public.”

Barletta and other candidates have theorized that the HHS flights that entered Pennsylvania could have potentially been carrying adults, too. But this, Nagda said, can be easily disproven: HHS would never have custody of adults.

“In fact, if HHS has an unaccompanied child in their custody, the day that child turns 18 and that child hasn’t been approved for release to a family member, that child will be transferred to [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and put in ICE detention,” she said. “They take the age of adulthood very seriously.”

It’s also unlikely that any undocumented children in U.S. federal custody pose any more COVID-19 risk than the average American. The federal government has a detailed list of protocols in regards to screening and releasing minors into the country. That includes multiple COVID-19 tests during processing, and vaccinating any child age five and older.

“Children who are infectious with communicable diseases of public health concern, which have potential to cause outbreaks, will not be released from ORR care until they are non-infectious,” one of the guidance documents says.

‘People are just pouring over’

There are signs that Republican fears on the issue are trickling down to local politics.

Pat Poprik, the longtime head of the Bucks County GOP, recently recalled that when she talks to voters in her area, one of the main issues they care about is immigration.

“People are being flown to other places and being brought into cities and states, coming into the school system,” she said. “All of a sudden, these people are just pouring over and we’re letting them run to wherever they want. And I think people think it’s wrong … and then they’re going to let them vote soon.”

Barletta’s most recent accusations that federal and state Democrats are moving immigrants in “secret” focuses on a flight that he says landed at Harrisburg International Airport in early January, one he alleges transported a group of undocumented adults to the Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility.

State and federal officials did not immediately respond to requests for clarification about the status of that particular group of people. But detaining migrants until their immigration cases are ruled on is a public, well-documented service that the Moshannon facility provides.

Heavily Republican areas of the state have welcomed such arrangements. Clearfield County recently contracted with ICE to convert the 1,878-bed former prison to a privately-run immigrant detention center.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups protested the move, arguing that conditions for immigrants are often subpar in these facilities. But in interviews late last year, Clearfield County officials heralded the deal as a boon to the local economy.

More minors arriving

Workie, the former HHS official turned policy researcher, says it’s true that there’s been an uptick in undocumented immigrants entering the U.S., especially unaccompanied minors. HHS reports that 122,731 undocumented minors were referred to the ORR in a period running from the last three months of 2019 to September 2021.

That’s way up from the 15,381 reported in the previous time frame, and is already creeping up on totals for the four-year terms of previous presidents. But she says in the last month or so, the numbers have “actually decreased a bit.”

Republicans have blamed the Biden administration’s handling of U.S. immigration law for the 2021 surge.

Early in his term, Biden had attempted to phase out the Donald Trump-era “Remain in Mexico policy,” which had required people seeking asylum to remain in often-dangerous tent camps on the Mexican side of the border while waiting to be processed.

But he had left in place emergency COVID-19 health orders that made it difficult for most adults to cross regardless, and the tent camps remained. The new administration’s efforts to permanently get rid of “Remain in Mexico” also faltered. The change was overturned in court, and the policy is back in effect while it’s being litigated. Unaccompanied minors are exempt from both “Remain in Mexico” and the COVID-19 health order.

Workie cautions that identifying any single reason for an immigration surge of minors or any other group of immigrants is “a very tough nut to crack.”

“In 2021, when we saw historical highs in the number of children arriving at the southern U.S. border, there are other factors that we looked at,” she said. “Climate change and the hurricanes that happened in November 2020, there’s also COVID … and of course there are the issues of violence and governance in that region.”

Nagda, the advocate with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, notes that it’s often only when these unaccompanied minors finally get to U.S. refugee shelters that they’re able to get the care and support they need.

Sometimes that’s a chance to reunite with someone they know. Sometimes it’s foster care. Sometimes, as in the case of the sex-trafficked 16-year-old girl she worked with, it’s careful advice from expert adults.

​​“It took a lot of work with this young girl, who’d been through incredible exploitation, to help her reach a point where she could recognize what had happened to her,” Nagda said. “Thankfully, she was in a facility where there were people who spoke her language, who helped her understand what was going on.”

Eventually the girl testified. Her trafficker was convicted, and the center was able to implement a safety plan for her family. The girl was placed in foster care, and eventually she won the legal right to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal