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'Ghost flights' are the latest GOP effort to weaponize immigration ahead of midterms

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. DeSantis signed a law last week aimed in part at limiting the number of migrant children flown into the state.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. DeSantis signed a law last week aimed in part at limiting the number of migrant children flown into the state.

The number of migrant children crossing the southern border without their parents reached a record high last year — and the backlash is still growing.

Republicans accuse the Biden administration of organizing secret flights, carrying migrants from the border to communities across the country, that critics have branded "ghost flights."

But that rhetoric is often at odds with the facts.

"It's not secret, and it's not new," said Jennifer Nagda, policy director with the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, a non-profit that works closely with unaccompanied children.

When children and teenagers from Central America cross the border alone, the federal government is required by law to care for them until they're reunited with a sponsor, often a parent or relative, or placed in a network of special shelters around the U.S.

To do that, federal officials sometimes fly those children on charter planes from the border to other parts of the country. For years, this was widely seen as normal, even routine.

Until it wasn't.

With border arrests at the highest levels on record, Republicans see immigration as a potent line of attack in midterm elections this fall. And some are seeking to weaponize basic operations of the immigration system that had rarely attracted attention before — including flights carrying unaccompanied children around the country.

GOP lawmakers across the country have sounded the alarm about "ghost flights" filled with migrant children — claims that have been amplified by Fox News and other right-wing outlets.

"There's no warning," said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference last week. "It's just in the middle of the night. And then you'll wake up and someone will say, 'they brought a bunch of unaccompanied minors.'"

But federal officials insist that these flights happened exactly the same way during previous administrations, including under former President Trump.

"This is completely consistent with the law and our responsibilities," said Jorge Silva, a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at U.S. Health and Human Services, in a statement. "Our legal responsibility is to care for unaccompanied children while they are on our watch, and that includes connecting them to vetted sponsors."

Federal officials say that flights carrying migrant children happen at all hours, and that they don't release information about the children on board to protect their privacy. Even the contractor operating the charter flights hasn't changed since the Trump administration, they note.

What has changed is that the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border reached an all-time high last year, topping 100,000 for the first time. And immigrant advocates say the amount of fear-mongering about them is rising too, in a way that's "really just divorced from reality and from facts," Nagda said.

The rules about the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children have been the same for years — spelled out most recently in the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008.

"This is part of a process established under a bipartisan law intended to treat children just a little bit more like the children that they are," Nagda said.

By the time former President Trump was elected, some Republicans argued that the law was creating unintended consequences — and that human smugglers and cartels have learned to exploit it in order to get more migrant children into the U.S..

"It's being abused for sure," DeSantis said last week. "So what that has done is that has facilitated and incentivized putting these minors on this journey" from Central America.

Under DeSantis, Florida issued an emergency order earlier this year to stop licensing shelters that care for migrant children. At least one shelter operator in the state, Bethany Christian Services, said it would stop caring for unaccompanied children in Florida as a result.

On Friday, DeSantis signed a law that blocks the state from doing business with air or bus carriers that bring undocumented immigrants to Florida, including unaccompanied children.

"What this bill does is it penalizes any of these contractors that the federal government is hiring to dump illegal aliens in our state," he said at a press conference in Pensacola, flanked by law enforcement officials while standing behind a podium with a sign reading "Biden's Border Crisis."

When DeSantis was asked how many companies might be affected by the law, he didn't offer an answer — but conceded that it's "difficult" for the state to stop charter flights that are operated by federal contractors.

Immigrant advocates suspect the real point of the law is to help DeSantis win reelection this fall, and run for president in 2024.

"It's really unconscionable to me that kids would be used as pawns in a political fight" between Florida and the White House, said Nagda.

There are no "ghost flights," she says. But the pushback against them is real. And the harm to migrant children could be, too.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.