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Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used a flight charter service reserved for the transportation of detainees to move tactical teams to Washington, D.C., to help quell protests on June 2 in the capital, according to a report by The Washington Post.
To justify the flights, ICE transported immigration detainees from facilities in Arizona and Florida to its Farmville, Va., immigration jail, a current and former official told the publication.
The transfer of detainees to Farmville ultimately contributed to a coronavirus outbreak at the facility, where more than 300 were infected and one person died, according to the report.
ICE routinely uses chartered flights, known colloquially as "ICE Air," to transfer detainees between detention centers and to execute deportations.
Per ICE regulations, said flights can only be chartered for the transportation of detainees, not exclusively for the relocation of assets, including federal agents.
Henry Lucero, the executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, said in a statement that the transfers were necessary for social distancing of detainees.
“ICE transfers detainees due to the operational demands of the detention network. The June 2 transfer of detainees to Farmville was made as part of a national effort to spread detainees across the detention network to facilitate social distancing and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Lucero.
Occupancy at ICE detention centers has been relatively low during the pandemic, including at the sites where detainees were picked up for transfer to Farmville.
According to ICE numbers cited by the Post, one center in Arizona, CCA Florence, was only 35 percent full, while Farmville was 57 percent full.
An ICE spokesperson disputed the Florence occupancy number, saying the facility had 194 detainees out of a total capacity of 360, not 550, as the Post gleaned from official data.
Detention center capacities vary significantly according to configuration, and ICE has set a maximum occupancy of 75 percent at its detention centers during the pandemic.
The ICE transfers also coincided with the beefing up of federal police forces in Washington as protests swelled over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
ICE officials and other federal agents have been routinely deployed to quell protests around the country, often despite local officials not requesting or openly opposing the federal presence.
A June 1 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo from a top official said special response teams were being relocated to Washington from Texas, Arizona and Florida.
Washington field office officials reportedly opposed the move but were overruled by headquarters, who ordered the transfer of prisoners aboard charter flights.
“They needed to justify the movement of SRT [special response team],” a DHS official told the Post about the prisoner transfers.
The coronavirus outbreak at Farmville led to a federal lawsuit in Virginia, where an ICE lawyer told the judge, “ICE has an air regulation whereby in order to move agents of ICE, they have to be moved from one location to another with detainees on the same airplane.”
Barring the transfer of detainees, ICE's tactical teams generally travel on commercial airlines.
Jeffrey Crawford, director of the company that operates Farmville, told a town council meeting in August that his staff was assured the June transferees were free of COVID-19 and that local officials' opposition to the transfers was overruled by DHS headquarters, according to the Post.
"We were told that one of the facilities where the detainees were coming from had no instances of COVID-19. In hindsight, we believe we’ve discovered information that that is not accurate. But that is what we were told at the time," said Crawford.
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