Less than two weeks ago, the Trump administration urged Americans to avoid nonessential travel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Major airlines slashed their routes. All the while, Sirous Asgari took nine different flights around the country.
None of them was by choice.
Asgari bounced around on chartered jets from Louisiana to Texas to New Jersey — a circuitous journey arranged by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has custody of the 59-year-old Iranian man. The federal agency continues to shuffle detainees around the nation, exposing them and others to possible infection.
As panic grows inside ICE facilities over the potential spread of the virus, some immigration attorneys said they were promised by local ICE officials last week that detainee transfers would halt temporarily. But the government has continued the practice anyway, data and interviews show.
In fact, two air charter companies known to be used by ICE continue to fly between airports known for detainee transfers, a ProPublica analysis of flight records shows. The charter companies, Swift Air and World Atlantic Airlines, have operated at least 16 flights between those locations since March 16 — the date when U.S. officials implored travelers to avoid discretionary travel and not gather in groups larger than 10 people. Asgari boarded at least one commonly used Swift Air passenger jet, a Boeing 737.
ProPublica’s findings raise new concerns as health experts urge minimizing travel. Once a coronavirus infection takes hold in a detention center — often a cramped facility with limited health care — experts and detainees alike worry that its spread becomes inevitable. (ICE has announced two confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in its custody, both in facilities in New Jersey, and three cases among ICE detention staff, in New Jersey, Colorado and Texas. Late on Thursday, a federal judge ordered the release of 10 ICE detainees held in New Jersey jails where COVID-19 cases had been confirmed.)
The risk goes beyond the 38,000-plus ICE detainees. It extends to detention center guards, people at local jails used for ICE detention and pretrial detainees who haven’t been convicted of a crime.
“It’s quite dangerous” to fly detainees around while much of the country is locked down, said Dr. Robert Greifinger, a New York physician who used to inspect ICE facilities as a Department of Homeland Security contractor. “In many states, particularly the states along the coasts, there are stay-at-home rules, and for ICE to be moving people to those areas or from those areas is dangerous not just for the detainees but for the staff and the communities into which the detainees are brought.”
ICE did not respond to questions from ProPublica for this story. On its website, ICE said it follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on screening and testing for the coronavirus.
Federal immigration officials have long transported detainees across America by air and bus depending on the demand for beds and to respond to medical needs and security concerns. “For the most part, ICE’s tempo has been to move detainees in a way that thinks of them more as widgets, or as supply chain issues, than human beings,” said a former senior ICE official, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
In Asgari’s case, the recent disruption in international air travel appears to have contributed to his numerous flights and delayed his deportation.
Asgari — who has a history of lung infections and pneumonia — has been held at four detention facilities in three states (Ohio, Louisiana and Texas). He’s also been placed on at least nine ICE flights across the country just since March 17. ProPublica used flight records to confirm Asgari’s account of his cross-country travels via Swift Air.
ProPublica discovered additional detainee trips, like Asgari’s, by analyzing flight patterns from aircraft-tracking services like FlightAware and ADS-B Exchange. Mapping software showed no significant slowdown in recent journeys between the Alexandria Staging Facility in Louisiana and similar detention facilities near Miami and Newark, New Jersey, as well as Laredo and Brownsville in Texas.
Some ICE transfers came before the epidemic erupted, but their timing offered opportunities for infection. (In one case on March 1, a detainee was sent from El Paso, Texas, to Tacoma, Washington, via the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, as the state saw its first coronavirus deaths.) The flights have continued even as many of the areas where detainees are held have gone into lockdown.
“This back-and-forth, massive movement of detainees under this coronavirus is absolutely dangerous,” Asgari said in a phone interview this week from Louisiana, where he is held pending deportation. “They are endangering the lives of all these people, including myself, and nobody cares. Why?”
Asgari, a materials science and engineering professor, was arrested by ICE agents in November after his acquittal on federal charges of divulging trade secrets. He, his family and his lawyers have pleaded with ICE to release him as the virus spreads because of his age and health history.
ICE officials have said they will scale back arrests in response to the coronavirus, but they told ProPublica on Monday that they have not yet reevaluated policies regarding those currently in detention.
Transfer decisions are often made by regional ICE field offices, the former senior ICE official said, sometimes without the knowledge of headquarters.
According to lawyers, ICE officials in at least two field offices said last week that they would pause detainee transfers but didn’t follow through.
“A week ago, [the El Paso ICE field office] told us they wouldn’t be transferring anybody else,” said Heidi Cerneka of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “And then the very next day, we had a client enter in contact with us in a panic because they told her she was going to be transferred.”
Last Friday, Las Americas attorneys say, a different Las Americas client was transferred without notice from El Paso to a nearby detention center in Otero, New Mexico. On Monday, a 60-year-old client told Las Americas she was placed on a full plane of detainees to be transferred to Louisiana, then removed by ICE officers and returned to El Paso without explanation.
In northern Florida on March 18, an ICE official told Mary Yanik, a lawyer with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, that a detainee’s scheduled March 19 transfer had been postponed because they were canceling “all movement of anybody for at least another week,” according to lawyer’s notes shared with ProPublica. On March 25, the detainee was transferred and Yanik was not notified.
Neither the El Paso nor Miami ICE field offices replied to a request for comment.
Detainees are supposed to be medically evaluated at each new facility, but the detention centers often do not have interpreters or medical records are not passed along.
At the Krome Processing Center, a Miami-area facility where detainees are often sent shortly before deportation, lawyer Bud Conlin said recently transferred detainees reported only temperature checks. Accounts suggest that when detainees are quarantined for coronavirus symptoms, it’s often after they’ve been in transit with others.
In a sworn statement filed this week as part of a federal lawsuit, attorney Keren Zwick of the National Immigrant Justice Center recounted one California detainee’s report.
After sleeping eight to a cell in an Otay Mesa detention center, the detainee was bused nearly three hours to Adelanto with 30 other men, two of whom were “coughing and visibly sick.” The sick detainees were separated only after arriving at Adelanto. (On Monday, the detainee was brought back to the Otay Mesa facility. He told his lawyer he received no medical checks after either transfer.)
For three months, Asgari was held at a facility in Youngstown, Ohio, and transferred in mid-February to the crowded Seneca County Jail, also in Ohio. Dozens of people shared one shower and four bathroom stalls, he said. The Seneca County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment.
While at Seneca, Asgari fell ill but recovered after treatment with antibiotics, he said.
Around March 10, Asgari was transferred from Seneca County to the Alexandria facility, a 400-bed ICE site in central Louisiana used as a deportation hub. Asgari believed that his deportation was imminent.
Dozens of people move in and out each day in the bare-bones facility with no outdoor space, Asgari said. “This facility, if the virus gets in, it would be a disaster,” he said. On Thursday, a sign saying the area was under medical observation was put on the door of Asgari’s pod, and a nurse took the temperatures of everyone in that pod. Detainees grew scared and frustrated, and the nurse did not explain.
A spokesman for GEO Group, which runs Alexandria, did not answer specific questions, but the company has said in a statement that its facilities have access to hand-washing facilities and soap, and include coronavirus screening during intake.
ICE facilities have a long history of mishandling infectious diseases that can rapidly spread outside their walls, endangering both detainees and the communities in which they are located. In audio obtained by ProPublica, an immigrant detained by ICE in New Jersey complained that he and other detainees are on a hunger strike to try to obtain soap and toilet paper in the midst of the pandemic.
Asgari said he was flown on March 17 from Louisiana to the Boston area, where some immigrants disembarked and others came onboard. They then flew to New Jersey, where Asgari said he was supposed to disembark for an eventual flight from New York to Iran.
Instead, the plane was held for hours in New Jersey, and he could not exit. Asgari said he was told by an ICE officer that his flight to Iran had been canceled. From New Jersey, Asgari and the other immigrants flew to Texas, and from Texas to Louisiana.
iAero Airways, which acquired Swift Air in 2018, did not respond to requests for comment. World Atlantic Airlines, another ICE flight operator, also did not respond. Neither company has contracts that show up in federal spending databases, which would disclose how much the operations cost taxpayers.
Several days later, Asgari traveled from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, where he said dozens of immigrants boarded the plane, and on to Brownsville. While most other passengers were deported to Mexico, he and a handful of others were transferred to ICE’s Port Isabel Detention Center, where they slept on a concrete floor.
The next morning, March 24, he flew from Brownsville to Toledo, Ohio, where he was supposed to disembark. At the last minute, he said ICE officials kept him on the plane, which then went on to Richmond, Virginia, and finally back to Louisiana. At each stop, he said the plane picked up more immigrants and was full when it finally landed late on Tuesday in Louisiana.
The ICE deportation officer assigned to Asgari’s case did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment. The officer, Scott Wichrowski, told Asgari’s attorney, Edward Bryan, on Thursday that his deportation is scheduled to occur “no later than early April,” according to an email seen by ProPublica.
But Bryan said Asgari’s experience demonstrates that ICE can’t guarantee his deportation date and that he should be released on bond in the meantime.
Asgari said he would be happy to arrange his own travel back to Iran if ICE would release him.