National News

Airlines Ask Government to Leave Them Out of It

Posted June 20, 2018 5:46 p.m. EDT

American Airlines asked the federal government on Wednesday to stop using its commercial planes for “transporting children who have been separated from their families due to the current immigration policy.”

The announcement, which was posted on American’s website, was the latest fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to separate parents who have arrived at the southern border illegally from their children. Soon after American’s announcement, and similar statements by other major airlines, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end the separation of families and detain parents and children together.

The involvement of the airline industry in the drama showed just how pervasive and passionate the opposition to the original policy had become. Several flight attendants for American, the world’s largest airline, had posted testimony on public and private social media channels in recent days, describing how they had seen groups of Latino children on domestic flights, accompanied not by parents but by federal agents.

In a tweet Wednesday, Frontier Airlines stated that it would “not knowingly allow our flights to be used to transport migrant children away from their families.” United Airlines said it had told federal officials that they “should not transport immigrant children” who had been separated from their parents. Southwest Airlines asked that “anyone” involved in separating children from their parents not fly with them.

A press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Tyler Q. Houlton, said it was unfortunate that airlines “no longer want to partner with the brave men and women of DHS to protect the traveling public, combat human trafficking, and to swiftly reunite unaccompanied illegal immigrant children with their families.”

“Despite being provided facts on this issue, these airlines clearly do not understand our immigration laws and the long-standing devastating loopholes that have caused the crisis at our southern border,” Houlton said.

It is difficult to discern whether the children seen by the American Airlines flight crews were those who had been separated from their parents under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Indeed, the airline, in its statement, said that it “has no way to know what kinds of government passengers it transports.”

“While we have carried refugees for nonprofits and the government, many of whom are being reunited with family or friends, we have no knowledge that the federal government has used American to transport children who have been separated from their parents due to the recent immigration policy, but we would be extremely disappointed to learn that is the case,” the statement said.

It continued: “We have therefore requested the federal government to immediately refrain from using American for the purpose of transporting children who have been separated from their families due to the current immigration policy. We have no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it.”

The number of children being moved on domestic flights is unclear. The New York Times contacted media offices of both the Department of Homeland Security and the agency under its jurisdiction, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but only received the statement from Houlton in response.

The Times also talked to several flight attendants who said they had been disturbed by seeing Latino children on American Airlines flights, accompanied by government agents. But they declined to give their names for fear of retaliation.

The topic has been a searing one for flight attendants. Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines (American’s flight attendants are represented by a different union). In a statement, Nelson acknowledged that the topic was a heated one among members.

“This national discussion and response is being felt on the planes and discussed among crews,” Nelson said in a statement. “Some are struggling with the question of participating in a process that they feel deeply is immoral.”

For flight attendants, the mere possibility that they could be involved in a process that is increasing, rather than ameliorating, children’s fears runs counter to one of their core missions. They are regularly entrusted with the care of unaccompanied minors, and take pride in making them feel welcome, many say. Jill Sanders, 51, an American Airlines flight attendant with three decades of experience, said that they were also trained to recognize and report cases of children who might be victims of human trafficking.

“We all can tell at least one story of holding a child while their mother goes to the bathroom on the airplane,” she said, “and know what it’s like when their mother is gone for one minute and 30 seconds.”

Sanders said she had not personally seen any children who appeared to be migrants separated from their families. But she said she had read several accounts from her colleagues that had been posted on a private Facebook page.

She said that she deemed a number of the posts on the private Facebook page to be “credible and verifiable,” given her personal knowledge of the writers and the details of the flights they described.

“Personally, I cannot imagine how I would justify, in my own mind, my decadeslong experience of giving comfort to a child who is upset with being required to participate in the transport of a child away from its mother,” Sanders said. On Tuesday, a Dallas-based flight attendant named Hunt Palmquist published an essay on the website of The Houston Chronicle.

“Several weeks ago, I worked two flights (one to San Antonio and the other to McAllen) which proved to be two of the most disturbing flights I’ve ever experienced in my career,” wrote Palmquist, who did not disclose which airline he worked for. “On board these particular flights were ICE agents and migrant children (approximately four to eleven years old) who had been separated from their families and were being flown to a ‘relocation’ site.”

It was not clear how Palmquist determined that the children were ones who had been separated from their families by the “zero-tolerance” policy. He wrote that a co-worker had been told by immigration agents that children on one flight were part of a soccer team, but that the agents later admitted to the co-worker that “they were, indeed children who were being relocated to assigned camps.”

Palmquist, who has worked in the airline industry for 29 years, said that he would refuse, in the future, to work on any flight “with children who’ve been separated from their families.”

“Since working the two flights, the images of those helpless children have burned into my psyche. The little children whose faces were full of fear, confusion, sadness and exhaustion left me somewhat traumatized as it occurred to me a few weeks later that I might as well have been a collaborator in their transport.”