ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been using the Abilene Regional Airport as a hub to transport undocumented immigrants across the country, and their mysterious operation has left local officials, legislators, and citizens wondering why this is happening and where the immigrants are going from here.

KTAB and KRBC shot video of strange activity at the airport, such as immigrants getting off unmarked planes, getting frisked, then getting onto buses. Other video shows these buses arrive at the airport and let the immigrants off, where they then board planes to anywhere in the country.

Abilene Director of Transportation Don Green says the airport is only given 24 to 48 hours notice before the flights arrive and they aren’t aware of what exactly is going on – only that the planes are private charters from ICE.

Green says sometimes, there are periods where no flights come in, but this month, there have been 2-3, which could explain why people are witnessing this strange activity more often.

It’s no secret that Abilene has an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Facility nearby – the Bluebonnet Detention Facility in Jones County – so that likely explains why the immigrants arrive but the mystery begins when they are released from custody.

So how long has this practice been going on? Congressman Jodey Arrington (R-19) says the flights have likely been coming into Abilene for some time but he was unaware that the immigrants were being taken to our airport after being released from custody, where they are then allowed to travel anywhere they have a sponsor, such as a family member or friend.

Arrington says he tried to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and he was unable to get clear answers to several key questions, such as how many immigrants are being released, where they are going, and more. 

“We have called everybody, up and down the chain, from the Secretary’s office to the local ICE agents, we hadn’t gotten any answers, we are asking, what’s going on, how many people are being released, where are they going, who is following up, will they have a court date, or their immigration hearing, or are they not even given a notice to appear in court, are they tested for COVID, what is the protocol for notifying local officials, has there been a background check  run on these folks,” Congressman Arrington explains.

He claims none of the city, county, or state officials in the Big Country have been notified of the ICE activity at the Abilene Regional Airport and no one in this area has a clear idea of what exactly is involved in catch and release operation in Abilene.

“Nobody, and I have called a number of local officials, and not one person has been notified by ICE or Homeland Security about this activity,” Congressman Arrington says. “So no, they didn’t notify me, they didn’t notify County Commissioners, County Judges, mayors, nobody. . .State Reps.”

KTAB and KRBC spoke to an immigrant who says he was quarantined for COVID-19 and vaccinated when he went through the process, then was released from the Blue Bonnet Facility, as well as an immigration attorney, who explains how the immigrants are able to leave and board flights to other places across the country.

To hear the full interview with Arrington, play the attached video.

ICE released the following background information on their operation in Abilene:

  • ICE has used Abilene Regional Airport to facilitate detainee transfers in accordance with operational needs.
  • ICE is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.
  • Detainees in transit from one facility to another institution or jurisdiction will be transported in a safe and humane manner under the supervision of trained and experienced personnel.
  • The detainee’s medical needs are prioritized prior to any transfer of the detainee to another facility. Upon transfer to another facility, the medical provider prepares and provides a Medical Transfer Summary. In addition, the medical provider shall ensure that at least a 7-day, and up to a 30-day, supply of medication shall accompany the detainee as ordered by the prescribing authority.
  • Accommodations during transfer are made for detainees with disabilities and/or special needs in accordance with security and safety needs and all applicable laws and regulations.
  • For detainees transferred to another detention facility, the agency will adhere to ICE Policy 11022.1 Detainee Transfers, and take into consideration immediate family, attorney of record, and status of removal proceedings.
  • ICE understands that detainees may have ties to the community and a support network near the location that they are detained, and ICE takes that into account when moving to a new facility to keep them as close as possible to their support network.
  • ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) is transporting individuals released from ICE custody to regional airports or bus stations, in accordance with COVID-19 protocols. Individuals released from ICE custody have a transportation and a temporary support plan in place prior to release.
  • Additionally, ICE is coordinating with non-governmental organizations to ensure individuals have immediate needs such as temporary shelter upon their release, as well as food, water, clothing, and transportation services to help mitigate strains placed on resources in the local community.
  • ICE makes custody determinations every day on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates.

Congressman Arrington penned this letter to the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thursday in response to the ongoing ICE operation in Abilene.