At least eight immigrants were recently arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while dropping off friends and relatives at John F. Kennedy International Airport for flights to Central America, Gothamist/WNYC has learned. Advocates and lawyers believe the arrests mark an escalation of immigration enforcement tactics in New York.
The new arrests appear to be part of Operation Noble Guardian, which targets adults who allegedly bring children who aren’t their own across the southern border in order to be designated as “family units.” That designation can lead to release rather than detention. ICE says that this scheme then involves sending the children back to their native countries by plane, where they can again be used to form family units with other adults crossing the border.
But lawyers who spoke with immigrants after they were arrested at JFK and detained at ICE detention centers in New Jersey over the last two months say others are getting caught in this dragnet. They say ICE is nabbing immigrants who are simply dropping off friends and relatives—and not just children—for flights to Central America, particularly Honduras. In some cases, children who struggled in New York may be returning home to live with another parent or relative. The adults may be identifiable to ICE because when minors travel without a parent, written consent from a guardian is often required.
Not all of the arrests involved children. Roberto Hernandez, a 41-year-old from Honduras living in New York, went to JFK on January 17th to say goodbye to his mother, who was headed back to Honduras. He went to the airport with a friend, who was putting his son on a plane. “And then when we were leaving the airport, leaving my mom in line, they got the guy I was with and then they got me,” Hernandez told Gothamist/WNYC.
ICE confirmed Hernandez was arrested at JFK on that date but would not answer questions about what operations and arrests are occurring at the airport. A spokesperson said Hernandez “illegally entered the United States at an unknown date and location,” and deportation proceedings are pending. He is currently out of detention on bond.
Rosa Santana of First Friends of New York and New Jersey, an advocacy group that works with detained immigrants, said she had met eight Honduran men, including Hernandez, who were held on immigration charges at the Hudson County jail in New Jersey. All were living in New York and dropping off relatives at JFK when they were arrested.
Santana said some were just approached at the airport by ICE officers, even though they hadn’t been with children. “They're just randomly racially profiling people, asking them for documents,” she said. “We need to let the community know that this is happening so anyone who's undocumented should be avoiding these airports.”
ICE has not indicated that Operation Noble Guardian is taking place at JFK. But in December, ICE publicly announced the arrest of a Honduran man at an airport in South Carolina as part of Operation Noble Guardian. In June, it reported statistics on children who suspiciously returned to their home countries without their parents. ICE, which runs this operation with Customs and Border Protection, calls this “child recycling.”
Emmy Cantos, an immigration paralegal for the advocacy group Make The Road New York, said her group has spoken with four people arrested at JFK in February. In one case, a father who had declared asylum with his young son last year at the southern border but was unable to care for the child in New York was sending him back to Honduras to live with his mother. Authorities may have been aware of who the man was; he had signed a note allowing the child to fly with another adult who was taking the same flight. After the child boarded the plane, officers arrested the father inside the terminal.
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In a second case, a man was dropping off his mother and the mother’s grandchild. As he and a friend left a coffee shop at the airport, eight officers approached them, interrogated them, wrote down numbers from their phones’ contact lists, and then arrested them, Santos said.
“They’ll come up to you and just ask you questions,” Cantos said. The officers didn’t initially identify themselves as ICE, she said, but asked immigration questions: When did you enter the country? What did you pay to get into the country? Where did you get the money to get into the country?
“I believe if they were interested in protecting the child they wouldn’t let the child get on the plane, but they do,” Santos said, referring to Operation Noble Guardian. “If you’re allowing the children to be on their way, it’s not clear to me that you really care about the children. You are here to arrest people, deport them.”
Immigrant advocates are concerned about ICE’s changing tactics, particularly in so-called “sanctuary cities” like New York, where local laws restrict law enforcement cooperation with ICE. Since the NYPD won’t hold all undocumented immigrants it encounters in order for them to be picked up by ICE, Trump Administration officials have said they need to find immigrants in the community. That has led to more arrests at homes, businesses, and courthouses, and so-called “collateral arrests” of undocumented immigrants who happen to be with those whom ICE is targeting.
Genia Blaser, an attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project, which monitors ICE tactics, said ICE has become “more deceptive” and “dangerously aggressive.” Last month a man was shot in the face by an ICE officer outside his mother’s home, and earlier this month officers pepper-sprayed a woman at a restaurant. ICE has also brought in reinforcements for operations in sanctuary cities, including tactical units from Customs and Border Patrol and officers from the non-deportation unit of ICE, known as Homeland Security Investigations, which is also involved in Operation Noble Guardian.
“The Trump administration and the ICE policing agencies have proven that they are intent on threatening and destabilizing cities like New York, who have taken a stand to protect the rights of their immigrant communities, by being a constant presence in our airports, our courthouses, our streets, and homes,” Blaser said.
A spokesperson for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said its police force does not assist ICE with arrests.
WNYC’s Gwynne Hogan and Emily Lang, and Gothamist’s Syndey Pereira contributed to this report.