Immigrants pay up to $100,000 for charter flights

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When a Legend Airlines Airbus A 340 landed at San Salvador airport on July 15 after an 18-hour flight from the United Arab Emirates, its crew quickly realized something was wrong.

Salvadoran officials refused to connect the jet bridge to allow the roughly 300 passengers, all Indian nationals, to disembark, according to three former crew members on the flight who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Several passengers told the cabin crew they planned to travel onward to Mexico and cross the border there illegally into the U.S., one crew member said. Others said they were going on vacation to the Mexican border city of Tijuana, another crew member said.

Salvadorean officials were already on high alert when the flight landed. Several months earlier, U.S. and Salvadoran authorities had noticed an unusual pattern of charter aircraft landing in El Salvador carrying primarily Indian nationals.

The planes were arriving full and leaving empty, a U.S. official said.

And some passengers claiming to be tourists brought only a backpack for weeks-long trips. U.S. authorities later discovered that nearly all of the charter passengers disembarking in San Salvador had crossed the border into the U.S., the official said.

Such charter flights represent a new phase of illegal immigration to the U.S., five U.S. officials said in interviews with Reuters. Increasingly, they said, migrants from outside Latin America are paying smuggling networks hefty fees for travel packages that can include airline tickets – on charter and commercial airlines – to fly to Central America and then bus rides and hotel stays en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“You have certain charter transportation companies charging extortion-level prices to prey on and profit from vulnerable migrants and facilitating irregular migration to the United States,” Eric Jacobstein, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere, told Reuters.

Jacobstein declined to comment on Legend or identify specific companies.

Liliana Bakayoko, a Paris-based attorney representing Legend since December, said the Romanian charter airline has not been accused of wrongdoing by any authorities. She added that she was unaware of the July flight and said the airline was basically like a “taxi driver.”

The record number of migrant arrests at the southwest U.S. border, which topped more than 2 million last fiscal year, has emerged as a major vulnerability for Democratic President Joe Biden in November’s presidential elections, with opinion polls showing more Americans trust Republican former President Donald Trump’s hardline approach to immigration.


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Chuck comes from a lineage of journalism. He has written for some of the webs most popular news sites. He enjoys spending time outdoors, bull riding, and collecting old vinyl records. Roll Tide!