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Commentary Coronavirus Immigration

ICE deportation flights continue out of El Paso airport despite COVID-19

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By Honora Spicer

Boeing Drive is the back alley parallel to Montana Avenue. Montana is the glamour of rapid transit — auto dealerships with balloons, car washes and detail services, El Paso International Airport terminal signage, your choice of fast food. Boeing Drive is the underbelly of rapid transit for the elite — self-storage units, airport fuel tanks, postal vehicle maintenance, airline offices, Customs and Border Protection General Aviation Facility.

Honora Spicer teaches history at El Paso Community College.

The east end of Boeing Drive T’s into a sandy scrub lot lined with “no trespassing signs.” Behind the fence across the lot are the sand-colored units of the El Paso Service Processing Center, a detention center operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These roads are site of flight and exchange and in equal measure site of enclosure. From Boeing Drive, it’s not difficult to identify the ICE buses lined up on the airport tarmac beyond the barbed-wire chain link fence on the north side of the street.

These are the same ICE buses which no longer drop migrants off at shelters in groups of 50 or 100, people who were on their way to stay with family members in the United States. They are the ICE buses which continue to wear down the road inside the detention center in asphalt loops, pulling in and out.

Preparations for a deportation flight

When I pull over on Boeing Drive, I can see the blue tail of the SwiftAir plane, one of the charter airlines for ICE deportation flights. This flight is taking off for Honduras at 10:02 a.m.

There is a smaller jet on the tarmac behind it near rows of hangars. This is the corner of the airport for chartered flights, for flights seemingly outside the parameters of public transparency. I watch through two fences the routine business of neon-vested workers loading vessels into the plane. I live at a time when passenger air travel is taken for granted, so the back and forth of intricate loading and checking which enables an empire of logistics seems somewhat familiar.

Nevertheless, there is something odd about this scene — the fueling, the dozen workers, the crowd of vehicles on the tarmac, the calculated intention and detailed logistics evident in the array of specific movements. It is my first excursion following weeks of staying at home during COVID-19, and I feel confused. Not only are the people on the tarmac not at home, which plenty of workers cannot be. But the entire scene is conspiring against people being at home. Plenty of the people inside of the ICE buses have been living and working in the United States for years. Being forcibly transported to Honduras is far from “going home.”

I am told that if there is a white van beside the ICE buses, it means that there are unaccompanied minor children who are being sent on the flight alone. Today there is a white van beside the ICE buses. A stairway is pulled up to the plane and figures begin to climb up. I watch them coming one at a time and imagine my own unsteadiness climbing on and off those stairways — the narrowness, the bluster.

But the movements in the distance have a more troubling, labored aspect, a rocking side to side. The people coming off the ICE buses are shackled around the ankle and wrist. I can see the chains through the zoom lens. With my eyes I can only see the evidence of shackling, each person’s arms crossed in front of them and the slow procession. The chains must clang against the aluminum steps.

Finding ritualized violence when you know where to look

I thought I lived at a time when public displays of violence were not the primary means of social control. So, it feels particularly abhorrent to realize that ritualized violence is only not visible when we don’t know exactly where to look. I found out this flight was departing through a network of connections tracking ICE flights that spans cities in the United States and Guatemala. If I had known, I could have seen this happening last year. If I hadn’t been able to make it, I could have come two days later to see the same thing over again.

The figures are men and women, some have curly hair, one has a ponytail, one has a teal t-shirt, another has a grey hoodie. It’s later clear from the pictures that there were 23 people in chains who boarded the plane.

When flight staff follow them, the swing of limbs is pronounced even at a distance. Everyone is wearing a mask. A majority of COVID-19 cases in Guatemala have come from U.S. deportation flights. Boarding ends, and the ICE buses make a loop on the tarmac. They back into the corner that I am behind, facing the flight. The ICE buses need to ensure that the flight takes off.

I saw a video of the protesters in Brownsville who approached the windshield of the ICE buses directly, raising up signs interrogating the drivers’ own complicity in this ceremony of deportation. I am not in front of the bus window, but rather behind the bus, sharing a view in common. Sharing the gaze of witness, I turn my attention instead to how I am also implicated. I return to the car and sit back in the beating sun.

The meanings of freedom

I live at a time when freedom is made equivalent to individualism. This semester I had talked to my community college students about ideas of freedom throughout U.S. history, categorized as “freedom from,’ “freedom of,” and “freedom to.’ These freedoms scroll in my mind as I sit in the heat parked outside of one of the many walls concealing the condition of those who board the plane.

“Freedom from” is the freedom which clouds the news today — freedom from government restrictions, freedom from economic shut-down.

“Freedom of” in its early modern sense designated how freedom depended upon entering into the political collectivity — a citizen of the city, it was said, had “the freedom of the city.” In that sense, the freedom of being outside that wall around the tarmac is not only “freedom from” physical restraint, but the “freedom of” recognition by a nation-state.

It also is “freedom of” being part of the collectivity of the city of El Paso. That includes the freedom of denouncing how ICE is operating in the city where I live, and how the city is subsidizing ICE deportations happening out of the public airport.

While many of us are sheltered at home, ICE continues to transport people in mass between detention centers across the country and continues to make deportations to places even more vulnerable to COVID-19. One of the many freedoms negated to people detained in this process is the “freedom to” join in acts protecting collective wellbeing, which is itself a freedom, and one that can only be claimed seeing beyond our individuality. Instead, ICE shows itself now more than ever to be a reckless and deadly agency.

When I drive back along Boeing, it feels maddening to powerlessly glimpse through the fences. To imagine the flight pulling across the tarmac as the pre-flight safety announcement is played, the rote instructions to pull down the oxygen mask or slip arms through the straps on the flotation device a mockery to a flight of people in shackles.

The people of the city of El Paso do not need to continue allowing this ritual of violence to happen in our back yard through enabling and subsidizing ICE use of the El Paso International Airport for deadly deportations.

Honora Spicer teaches history at El Paso Community College and work as an abolitionist activist with the El Paso Anti-Deportation Squad. She holds an MA from Harvard University and a BA from Oxford University. 

Cover photo: Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees board a deportation flight at El Paso International Airport. (Photo by Justin Hamel)

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