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Hundreds of asylum seekers take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2 in October 2023.

Hundreds of asylum seekers take shelter inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 2 in October 2023. A bankrupt aviation company that brought more than 120 additional asylum-seekers from Texas to Chicago on Tuesday.

Pat Nabong

A charter plane company used to transport deportees was hired to bring asylum-seekers to Chicago

A bankrupt aviation company that brought more than 120 asylum-seekers from Texas to Chicago on Tuesday has a history of handling deportation flights for the federal government.

A Boeing 737 owned by iAero Airways flew out of El Paso and landed at O’Hare Airport around 9:34 p.m., according to flight records. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office took responsibility, saying his state was “expanding our operation” of shuttling migrants to Chicago after Mayor Brandon Johnson began “targeting migrant buses from Texas.”

It marked the first time Texas officials chartered a flight to transport migrants to Chicago since Abbott began sending busloads of asylum-seekers to Chicago last year as part of a broader push to shift the burden of immigration onto liberal cities that have committed to welcoming new arrivals.

Abbott’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about the flight or its relationship with iAero, a company based in Greensboro, North Carolina, that acquired Swift Air in May 2019. Executives at iAero, whose main hub is in Miami, couldn’t be reached for comment.

In April 2019, the University of Washington Center For Human Rights published a report saying Swift Air was a key player in a lucrative business of deporting migrants for the federal government.

Swift became one of the “most frequently-used aviation subcontractors,” operating deportation flights under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the report said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general reported in 2015 that ICE’s overarching air operations, known as ICE Air, could have saved more than $41 million by optimizing flight capacity and managing its resources better. At the time, ICE Air paid an average of $8,419 hourly for each charter flight regardless of the number of passengers, the inspector general said.

Although iAero has chartered flights for rock stars and professional sports teams and has counted the massive asset manager Blackstone Inc. as an investor, the firm recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Its creditors include the Chicago Bulls, the Chicago Blackhawks and the city of Chicago. A spokesperson for the city couldn’t immediately say what iAero owes it.

A spokesperson for the Department of Aviation declined to answer any questions, referring them all to the mayor’s office.

More than 26,000 migrants have been bused to Chicago since August 2022, when Abbott started sending them to push back against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

Several thousand morehave been flown by other groups, including Catholic Charities of San Antonio.

More than 600 buses have arrived in Chicago. But the vast majority — 500 — have arrived since Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allowed for migrants to be turned away at the border, ended in May and in particular the past few months.

At the start of October, about nine buses were arriving daily and had begun to arrive at all hours.

This month, Johnson attempted to crack down on these “rogue buses” dropping off migrants without coordination by filing lawsuits against operators and leaning on a new measure that allows the city to impound buses for flouting the rules.

The City Council passed its bus ordinance on Nov. 18. In a statement Thursday, the city said 96 buses had been cited and one had been impounded.

The city received its first “permitted bus arrival” Thursday, according to the statement.

In a Facebook post, Abbott said his decision to place migrants on the charter flight, sending his Operation Lone Star into the air, was driven by Johnson’s bus gambit.

“Sanctuary city Chicago started obstructing and targeting our busing mission,” Abbott said in the post, which includes video of migrants boarding the plane. “Texas will now expand our operation to include flights to Chicago.

“Until Biden steps up to secure the border, we will continue to provide overwhelmed Texas border towns with much-needed relief.”

Bus operators from Texas have also begun skirting the bus drop-off rules by dropping off migrants at train stations outside the city and buying them tickets from there.

The city did not answer questions about what it would do about other charter plane arriving carrying migrants.

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