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Law and Criminal Justice

Immigration/Customs Enforcement Uses Gary Airport Weekly For Deportations

Steve Burns/Indiana Public Broadcasting

The Trump administration is laying out its plans for ramping up enforcement of illegal immigration.

Memos released Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security say the agency is changing the way it prioritizes people for deportation.

When people who’ve entered the country illegally are detained in the Midwest, some of them fly out of Indiana.

Every week families say their goodbyes – not knowing when they’ll see each other again.

It’s just before 7 a.m. in a noisy, industrial Chicagoland neighborhood. People are slowly filing onto the sidewalk and hugging in front of a brown brick building that’s surrounded by fencing and barbed wire.

Immigration attorney Royal Berg is among them. “Here, every Friday since December 2006, we’ve been holding a prayer vigil,” Berg says.

The unmarked building that serves as the backdrop for the vigil is a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

The immigrants inside are transported here after they’re detained. The Clay County Jail in Brazil, Indiana, is also used to house detainees arrested for immigration violations in the Midwest.

Every Friday for the past ten years, members of the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants pray outside as families say their goodbyes. Spouses and children walk out of the front door crying as the vigil continues.

“We knew that we had to be here every Friday because we realized what our country was doing to our immigrant sisters and brothers,” says founding member Sister JoAnn Persch. “And we saw the families being ripped apart.”

Credit Steve Burns/Indiana Public Broadcasting
Interfaith Committee members gather weekly at the Gary/Chicago International Airport where illegal immigrants are deported weekly.

This marks the eleventh year for the weekly vigils. And, it’s clear from Berg’s message today the mood here has shifted since the election of President Donald Trump.

“Today marks the fourth anniversary, or the fourth week, however, of our new president being in office,” Berg says during the vigil. “A period that has resulted in a lot of tumult as he’s issued a series of executive orders that have caused great fear and hardship and suffering to our immigrant brothers and sisters.”

Department of Homeland Security memos released this week say few people who entered the country illegally will be exempt from enforcement of federal immigration laws.

It will prioritize not only those convicted of crimes, but also those with pending criminal charges, those who immigration officers determine are a risk to public safety or national security, and people who have abused any program related to the receipt of public benefits.

The Interfaith Committee provides several services for the immigrant and refugee communities, including housing and pastoral care. Executive Director Melanie Schikore says many of the recipients are on edge.

“They’re anxious,” Schikore says. “Everybody’s anxious. The people we’re visiting in detention centers are anxious. Our volunteers and staff were anxious because the way that things were done left everyone reeling and wondering, what does this mean? And it seems like it’s kind of fear tactics to scare the immigrant community.”

Federal Immigration officials say recent enforcement operations focused on those who have criminal records.  But some people who weren't targeted in the operation were arrested because they didn't have documentation.

Credit Steve Burns/Indiana Public Broadcasting
Immigration Attorney Royal Berg speaks outside an ICE detention center in Illinois.

Some of the nuns go inside to pray with those being deported. They say there are about 60 immigrants leaving today.

Those who are being deported are loaded onto two large, white charter buses that have the windows blacked out, unaware of where they are or when they’ll see their families again.

Persch says, even after a decade of vigils, watching never gets easier.

“This is the end and every Friday is hard,” she says.

ICE Flies Detainees Out Of Gary Weekly

The buses travel about 40 miles away to the Gary/Chicago International Airport. It’s a small airport, with few cars in the parking lot.

Credit Steve Burns/Indiana Public Broadcasting
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deports illegal immigrants from the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

A large fence surrounds the runways and terminals and we can see the buses pull up to a plane. Officers bring the immigrants out in shackles, where they’re searched before boarding.

Federal immigration officials didn’t respond to requests for an interview about how many immigrants are flown out of this airport for deportation and how often.

We know from those who hold vigils that it happens at least once a week. ICE says on its website it conducted more removals during the 2016 fiscal year than in 2015.

According to a 2015 report, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses commercial and charter flights to move detainees. The report says the agency pays an average of $8,419 per flight hour for charter flights.

It’s a system Schikore of the Interfaith Community says needs to be reevaluated. “Definitely the immigration system is completely broken. For many people, there is no legal path to come here,” Schikore says.

So, every Friday the group will continue to gather outside the detention center where the deportation process begins, hoping their words will inspire action.

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