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No, the Biden administration is not organizing 'ghost flights' of migrant children

The number of migrant children crossing the southern border without their parents reached a record high last year — and the backlash is still growing.

President Biden's critics accuse his administration of organizing "secret" migrant flights to airports across the country.

But those critics get some key facts wrong.

"It's not secret, and it's not new," said Jennifer Nagda, policy director with the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights, a non-profit that works closely with unaccompanied children.

When children and teenagers from Central America cross the border alone, the federal government is required by law to care for them until they're reunited with a parent, or another sponsor, in the U.S. To do that, officials say they sometimes fly those children on commercial or charter planes to reach those adults, or a network of special shelters around the country.

You may not have heard much about these flights — unless you've been reading conservative media and watching Fox News, where these so-called "ghost flights" filled with "underage migrants" have been getting plenty of attention.

Conservative media outlets devoted multiple segments to recently-released video footage of one charter flight that landed in August in a suburb of New York City. The grainy footage shows what appear to be teenagers climbing off the plane and onto the tarmac.

It was recorded on a body-worn camera by a local police officer, who tries to talk with some of the federal contractors at the airport. "What we don't want to do is attract attention," one of the contractors explains. "If this gets out," another contractor tells the officer, "the government is betraying the American people."

The video was released by Rob Astorino, a Republican and former Westchester county executive who is running for governor in New York.

"All of this was on the hush hush and on the down low and in the middle of the night, so nobody would find out," Astorino said in an interview. "So that obviously raised even more questions about why they were hiding something like this."

But federal officials say the answers are straightforward — and that these flights happened exactly the same way during the Trump administration.

"This is completely consistent with the law and our responsibilities," said Jorge Silva, a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at U.S. Health and Human Services, in a statement. "Our legal responsibility is to care for unaccompanied children while they are on our watch, and that includes connecting them to vetted sponsors."

Federal officials say these flights happen at all hours of day and night, and that they don't release details about the passengers on purpose to protect their privacy. Even the contractor operating the charter flights hasn't changed since the Trump administration, they note.

The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has surged before, under former Presidents Obama and Trump. But the number soared even higher in 2021, topping 100,000 in a year for the first time.

Immigrant advocates say the amount of fear-mongering about unaccompanied children is rising, too.

"That's really just divorced from reality and from facts," said Nagda. The treatment of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America is governed by a federal law known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008.

"This is part of a process established under a bipartisan law intended to treat children just a little bit more like the children that they are," she said.

But none of that has silenced President Biden's critics.

"These are middle of the night flights. No notification to the state or anybody," said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at a press conference in November, shortly after a migrant who allegedly pretended to be a minor to get into the U.S. was accused of murder in Jacksonville.

"This is not the way you keep people safe," said DeSantis, a Republican who is said to be considering a run for president. "It's reckless and it's wrong."

Florida accuses the Biden administration of participating in a "human trafficking scheme." DeSantis's allies in the legislature are pushing a bill that would punish air carriers who transport unaccompanied children into the state.

That state has also moved to stop licensing shelters that care for migrant children, unless the federal government gives the state more notice and control over the program. It's not clear yet if shelters in Florida can keep going without state licenses, or if DeSantis will push to shut them down altogether.

"It's really unconscionable to me that kids would be used as pawns in a political fight," said Jennifer Nagda.

There are no "ghost flights," she says. But the pushback against them is real. And the harm to migrant children could be, too.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.