I-Team Investigation: Forced to Fly

TOLEDO (13abc Action News) - A twin engine plane flies over Toledo about once a week. You've probably never noticed. This plane is different. The passengers on board are not taking a vacation.

The aircraft is a tool in America's fight against illegal immigration and its happening right in our backyard. For some families it's the beginning of the end of their time in this country.

Toledo Express Airport is known for flights to Florida, Chicago and Charlotte. But if you go to the other end of the runway, on Tuesdays, you'll find a flight with a different destination.

It's usually a busy four day stretch when Brenda Aranda-Soto's family taco truck opens in Toledo off East Broadway.

Meal after meal, maybe lunch maybe dinner, flying out of Tacqueria Otates.

“Toledo, I feel like it's home. No matter where else I go, if I go live in another state, there's nothing like home," said Aranda-Soto.

Aranda-Soto is what's called a “dreamer.” Only a few months old, she came to the US from Mexico. In June of 2012, President Obama signed DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Meaning children brought here illegally could stay.

At 17 years old, Brenda thought she'd be staying for the rest of her life meaning she'd never have to use something called ICE Air. It’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement's air operation. It leaves Toledo on Tuesdays

Who’s leaving on it? According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the operation's mission "removes aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who enter the United States illegally or otherwise undermine the integrity of our immigration laws."

"Us as advocates need to stand with those communities to highlight that this is actually a welcoming community," said Eugenio Mollo, from Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.

Mollo’s work focuses on immigration. He says people are confused these days, some even panicked. Not sure what's coming next.

“We're trying to hold the officials accountable to make sure due process is being carried out. Due process is enshrined in our constitution. It protects everyone regardless of their immigration status,” said Mollo.

So where do “ICE AIR” flyers go from Toledo? Over the years, 13abc has learned, people have gone to a variety of places: Chicago, San Antonio, Laredo and most recently Alexandria Louisiana. Their final destination depends on home country.

It's not a secret operation or a hidden operation. Some could call it discreet. The plane has no markings and the vans surrounding it have markings. It's tough to tell what it is.

ICE Air is not always a deterrent to keep people from coming back. That’s illustrated in a recent example. Emilio Riveria Portillo sits in federal custody in Toledo right now. He’s accused of coming back into this country illegally. Federal court records show in 2003 Rivera Portillo was "removed to Honduras by air at Houston Texas."

The program isn't cheap. A recent report by the Officer of the Inspector General estimates that ICE air costs around $8500 per charter flight regardless of the number of passengers aboard.

What's coming next in immigration law out of Washington has people like Brenda worried. Her home, her business and most importantly her son are all here. She knows citizenship would be one path.

“I'd have to apply for it and get a lawyer, it costs a lot of money to do it. Some lawyers they don't want to help you with it because it's a lot of work. There are a lot of things you need to go through in order to get that. Information you have to get from Mexico. Some of the information you can't get because there's nobody down there anymore that can help you," said Aranda-Soto.

She doesn't even know where she'd go if sent back to Mexico, if she was forced to fly on ICE air.

“In my mind I feel like I'm an American citizen. I have been here since I was little," said Aranda-Soto.

To the point on due process, An Inspector General report from April, says in part that ICE does not provide clear policies and procedures or sufficient training.

That's in part why advocates work as hard as they do.
In response to this criticism ICE has agreed procedures will be reviewed and the estimated date for that review to be completed is next January.