ICE Pays Aviation Firm Thousands to Fly Cuban Deportees From Miami to Havana

Despite the fact that Donald Trump came to Miami on the campaign trail and promised to be a friend to Miami's exilio community in Little Havana, deportations to Cuba spiked after he took office. As of December 9, 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was holding 1,686 Cuban nationals in detention and had deported 160 Cuban nationals that year — more than twice as many as were deported in 2016.

One private charter company is making bank flying all those deportees from Miami to Havana, according to a New Times review of federal ICE contracts. ICE first began paying Virginia-based Zephyr Aviation, LLC, to deport Cubans in July 2014. Through two previous contracts, Zephyr made a total of $98,300 running deportation flights between Miami and the Cuban capital.

But in 2017, with Trump in power, the company signed a much larger new contract with ICE worth a maximum of $347,636. (The government has so far just spent $22,000 of that.) The contract lasts until 2022. Federal contracting data shows ICE is paying Zephyr to fly between Miami and Havana — a trip that takes slightly more than an hour — for "detention compliance and removals."

Some of the contracting data were first disclosed in an ICE-contractor rundown by the website Sludge last week. Two family members — Chip and Fred Credno — run Zephyr, according to contracting data available online.

It's unclear exactly how often Zephyr flies to the island or how many people the company's charter flights can hold. A Zephyr representative did not respond to a call from New Times today, and ICE's Miami spokesperson, Nestor Yglesias, referred questions to ICE's central communications office in Washington. According to Zephyr's current government price list, the firm is authorized to fly anything from a five-seat Cessna jet (at $5,300 per hour) up to a 500-seat Boeing 747 (at $20,100.76 per hour).

Contracting data shows another, larger firm — CSI Aviation, ICE's largest single airline contractor — has also flown deportees from Miami to Cuba. According to the government-tracking website GovTribe, CSI made a cool $15 million flying deportees from Miami to Havana from 2011 to 2013.

CSI is still profiting from ICE contracts around the country. The firm's founder and CEO, ex-Marine Col. Allen Weh, launched a failed campaign for New Mexico governor in 2010, and then another failed Senate campaign in New Mexico in 2014. In both campaigns, he ran as an immigration hard-liner — but during his losing Senate bid, he was repeatedly forced to defend his ownership of a company making cash from harsh immigration policies. Weh wound up winning the 2014 GOP primary in New Mexico before losing to incumbent Democratic Sen. Tom Udall.

As ThinkProgress noted in 2016, Weh has since hopped on the Trump Train: He helped lead Trump rallies in New Mexico, participated in fundraising drives at Trump Tower, and even donated the federal maximum $2,700 to Trump's campaign, as well as $24,600 to the Republican National Committee and $10,000 to the Trump Victory political-action group.

Zephyr is far from the only South Florida company making money off ICE's detention and deportation policies: According to an analysis from Sludge, Boca Raton's private-prison behemoth, GEO Group, holds nearly a half-billion dollars in ICE contracts, far more than any other private firm in America. Among other services, GEO operates multiple ICE detention centers around the country, including the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach.

While the U.S. still deports far fewer Cubans than other Latin-American nationals (Guatemala, for example, saw 33,000 deportations in 2017), the number could grow in coming years. Before leaving office, Obama finally ended the so-called "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy that allowed any Cuban migrant who made it to U.S. soil (by crossing the border or not) to obtain expedited citizenship. While Trump threatened to reverse that move, he ultimately left the Obama-era changes in place, which means Cuban nationals are now subject to the same ICE-detention tactics as immigrants from nearly every other country.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.