SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador, Dec. 16, 2008— -- ICE Air could be the busiest airline you've never heard of. It serves 30 countries, tickets are free and unlike most carriers, it gives each passenger a complimentary meal. But to secure a flight, you need to be an illegal immigrant.
ICE is a one-way airline operated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. At a time when most airlines are cutting flights and adding fees for aisle seats, extra luggage and snacks, ICE air is growing by about 10 percent a year.
"We've actually added aircraft to our fleet, and we're actually seeing an increase in the number of aliens being moved around the country and out of the country," said Michael Pitts, the chief of flight operations.
ICE has 22 detention facilities all over the country. When illegal immigrants are caught, they're flown to one of three hubs in Texas, Arizona or Louisiana. From there, ICE Air has daily flights to Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and also frequent flights to Nicaragua, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and the Caribbean. When it gets enough immigrants to fill a plane, it also flies to Asia, eastern Europe and Africa.
ICE Air leases nine planes, and sometimes it also charters commercial jets. It flies six days a week.
A flight starts with a 2 a.m. wake-up. The illegal immigrants are rousted at a detention center where they eat breakfast, pack and ponder an involuntary trip home.
David Garcia was held at a detention center in Raymondville, Texas, before he was deported to El Salvador after 16 years in the United States.
"I have two kids over here," said Garcia, who came to the United States illegally and had been working in construction since the age of 19.
"I left a big part of my life behind," he said, choking up. "I have to start all over again. I don't know what I'm going to do over there. … It's kind of difficult, you know, but there's a lot of feelings going on me right now."
Garcia acknowledges that the United States "is not our country. We do not have the documents that we need to need to be there."
Many Illegal Immigrants ICE Air Sends Home Return
Jacqueline Ceciliano, who was working as a hotel housekeeper in New Jersey, was on the same flight as Garcia. She would see her two children for the first time in four years.
When asked if she was happy to be going home, she suppressed a sob as she said, "Oh, yes, yes … I'm happy."
Like many others, she wouldn't be able to send money home anymore, but she said she didn't care.
"I like this country. Everybody's nice. I like it, but I miss my babies. I miss my babies too much."
Security on ICE Air is, as you might imagine, pretty tough. Passengers are patted down before they get on a bus to go to the airport, and are then patted down again before getting on the plane. Unarmed security guards double as flight attendants, but the service is actually quite friendly.
"For most of these folks, they've had a long journey getting here to the United States. They've been in custody anywhere from two days to two weeks to two months, so we want to make sure that once they get onboard they have a favorable impression of the government," said Pitts.
Last year, ICE flew more than 209,000 illegal immigrants. Their numbers have increased as the government has cracked down on illegals, and the people at ICE Air say they're saving the U.S. taxpayers money.
"What it costs us is about $680 per alien on a foreign removal flight," said Pitts. "So that's about a third of the cost it would be to get them a commercial ticket."
Some of the flights are exclusively for people convicted of crimes. On one flight to Mexico, all the passengers wore handcuffs and leg irons.
Guadelupe Cabarena, who was sentenced to five years for aggravated assault and turned over to ICE after her release, said she expected to come back to the United States.
"As a matter of fact, I was thinking just to rent a hotel room for tonight in Laredo or whatever, and then just to rest. ... I'm tired ... and then just come back," she said.
Raul Cornelia Pena, who served six years for solicitation to commit burglary, was being returned to Mexico for the second time.
"I didn't have no choice, because I wasn't going to leave my family behind and just say forget it," he said. "They sending me with no money, no nothing, I don't know anybody. I don't know what I'm going to do."
Deported to Home Country, Planning to 'Start All Over'
Pitts acknowledged that some of those deported return.
"There are going to be some aliens that do return back across the borders, but we're going to be there for them, if we don't take them out at the point of entry or between the point of entry, then we will get them in the interior of the United States," he said.
He said it's "a given" that some repeat offenders will return, "but by securing our borders and beefing up immigration enforcement we know that they'll be cut once again and returned."
Pitts said that those who have entered illegally must be returned home. "We need to respect the sovereignty of our nation as a whole. If you want to come in the country; you need to come in the country legally."
After the flight to El Salvador landed in the capital city, passengers were served a traditional El Salvadoran meal and offered free employment training.
After a brief interview and a criminal background check, they were allowed to leave.
"I feel kind of weird, you know, everything is going to be new for me," Garcia said.
Returning home, he had to stop to ask for directions several times and was overwhelmed to see his father and the rest of his family. The home he returned to was basic, with water coming from a well and animals everywhere.
"I'm happy, but I'm sad at the same time," Garcia said. "Everything is going to start all over again over here and ... I don't know how is going to be my life here. But I am going to try my best to success, you know."