Amazon Co-Owns Deportation Airline Implicated in Alleged Torture of Immigrants

An investigation by Capital & Main published February 3 found that no “testing requirements, safety guidelines or certifications exist in the United States for full body restraint systems like the WRAP” and “identified 10 lawsuits brought by families of people who died in police custody during incidents involving the WRAP since 2000,” though these deaths were not definitively attributed to the device’s use. Safe Restraints’s CEO told Capital & Main that the company “operate[s] under the highest standards that we believe are necessary to help people stay alive” and that “we have an incredibly high safety record,” but cited no evidence.

“Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading” Safety Device on Flights

“I have never felt such horrible pain. It was torture.”

“A disproportionate amount of the abuses that we have seen are on [Omni] flights to African countries of origin. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a reflection of inherent anti-Blackness or racism.”

Godoy points to two particularly horrific publicly reported ICE Air flights that her team’s research indicates were conducted by Omni: The notoriously botched 2017 Somalia mission and a 2016 charter in which deportees described being tased and treated like “sacks of vegetables” in WRAP restraints. “Officers took cellphone videos of the prisoners as they lay on the ground, they said, then grabbed the bags by the handles and heaved them onto the plane, some landing with a thud,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. (An ICE spokesperson told the Times that the WRAP had been used because deportees refused to comply with orders.) “A disproportionate amount of the abuses that we have seen are on [Omni] flights to African countries of origin,” Godoy added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a reflection of inherent anti-Blackness or racism. I wonder what makes this a special high-risk charter other than the color of the skin of the people that are on the plane.”

Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Since Amazon acquired its chunk of Omni’s corporate parent last year, the airline has conducted at least 21 deportation and related flights, according to data compiled by researcher and ICE Air observer Tom Cartwright, who like Towle works with the migrant advocacy group Witness at the Border. In the fall of last year, following a graphic and widely criticized crackdown against Haitian migrants fleeing political chaos and environmental disaster in their home country, the Biden administration executed a mass expulsion, deporting nearly 4,000 individuals back to Haiti, including thousands of parents and children, all of whom were denied the opportunity to apply for asylum in the United States. After being chased and, they alleged, whipped by Border Patrol agents on horseback, captured Haitian migrants were funneled into a mass deportation operation that was facilitated in part by Omni, six months after Amazon assumed its stake; the operation involved carrying prisoners in charter flights from Del Rio, Texas, to El Paso, on the Texas-Mexico border, en route to Port-au-Prince. Most recently, Towle says, she and Cartwright identified a January 25 Omni flight on which 211 asylum-seeking deportees, including 90 children, were deported back to Brazil. “Reports from there indicate the deported Brazilians believe their human rights were violated by ICE officers,” Towle told The Intercept.

A report published by Amnesty International in December condemned the Omni-enabled mass deportations, noting, “Many expelled Haitians have disembarked US deportation flights sick, handcuffed, hungry, traumatized, and disoriented only to find themselves in a ‘humanitarian nightmare’” back in Haiti. The Biden administration’s use of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that deported asylum-seeking migrants on dubious coronavirus-related public health grounds, drew particular criticism. In October, State Department lawyer Harold Koh resigned following the Haitian deportation flights, which he slammed as “illegal” and “inhumane.” Koh’s letter accused ICE of committing “refoulement,” or deporting individuals to a country knowing that they fear persecution and harm there, in violation of international law, a charge echoed by groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the University of Washington Center for Human Rights.

Photo: Larry MacDougal/AP
Amazon’s “Commitment to Immigrant Rights”

“These documents only serve to illustrate the secrecy surrounding these flights, [some] of which cost taxpayers around $1 million.”

Amazon’s ownership of an airline implicated in the torture of immigrants would appear to be at odds with its solidly pro-immigrant public rhetoric. Last June, noting that “Immigrant Heritage Month provides an opportunity to honor the contributions of immigrants and celebrate the powerful ways that diversity enriches America’s culture, common identity, and economy,” Amazon’s corporate blog published a post titled “Renewing our commitment to immigrant rights and immigration reform,” emphasizing that the company continued to contemplate “how we can more effectively use our voice to advocate for the rights of immigrants.” The company has also published numerous written commitments to generalized notions of “human rights,” including within its supply chain and logistics network — which includes, of course, shipping providers like ATSG. “We commit to embedding respect for human rights throughout our business,” according to the Amazon Global Human Rights Principles. “We strive to ensure the products and services we provide are produced in a way that respects internationally recognized human rights,” reads another corporate document. The deliberate infliction of painful and degrading “stress positions” like those described by deportees placed in WRAPs has been described as a form of torture by the United Nations. Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization that has advocated against the use of “stress positions” and criticized ICE’s expansive deportation powers, counts Amazon Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Jay Carney among the most prominent members of its board of directors. Human Rights First did not respond to a request for comment.

Photo: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
The Activists Tracking Deportations — and Amazon

2022-02-17 | Justice | English |