Migrant Children Arrive in Pennsylvania Airports, Sparking Debate Over Refugee Resettlement Practices

Following reports that planes carrying migrant children arrived at Pennsylvania airports last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has confirmed the children arrived through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). These reports quickly drew objections from gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta, who vowed to end the practice if he is elected governor.

Migrant Children Arrive at Pennsylvania Airports

According to a recent article by the Morning Call, multiple unidentified airplanes carrying minors arrived at the Wilkes-Barre International Airport on December 11, December 17, and December 25. Despite initial allegations the minors were in the care of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), it has since become clear the flights were part of the ORR, an office of HHS.

The passengers from the flights departed the planes and boarded buses to be taken to undisclosed locations. While passengers from at least one flight boarded buses bound for Brooklyn, New York, it is unclear where the other passengers were sent.

This week, the operator of Lehigh Valley International Airport (LVIA) confirmed it, too, has been accepting federally chartered flights like those reported at Wilkes-Barre International Airport. According to Colin Riccobon, spokesman for the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which operates LVIA, “[s]imilar to reports of operations at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (AVP) and airports around the nation, Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE) has also received Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) charter flights and potentially could see additional operations in the future.” Riccoban added that as a federal public use airport, “the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority (LNAA) does not have the ability to discriminate against any aeronautical activity by refusing or denying aircraft from arriving or departing Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE).”

Office of Refugee Resettlement

In recent weeks, the HHS confirmed the flights reported at Wilkes-Barre International Airport were operating as part of the ORR. The office, created by the United States Refugee Act of 1980, offers support for refugees seeking safe haven within the United States. Refugees under this program include victims of human trafficking, those seeking asylum from persecution, and survivors of torture and war, as well as unaccompanied alien children.

Confirmation that the planes were part of the Office of Refugee Resettlement quickly drew criticism from Pennsylvania lawmakers.

Objections to Refugee Resettlement

Following the news, former Congressman Lou Barletta, an illegal-immigration hardliner, objected to the practice of refugee resettlement in Pennsylvania. Barletta, who is currently vying to be the Republican gubernatorial nominee, vowed to stop the federal government’s longstanding practice of bringing unaccompanied minors found by the Border Patrol to facilities, including those in Pennsylvania. Further, Barletta said he would refuse to allow migrant children into Pennsylvania schools unless they met vaccine requirements.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has not objected to the flights or the practices of the HHS. In a statement, Gov. Wolf suggested questions of immigration policy should be directed to the federal government, calling Barletta’s opposition a “political PR stunt.”

Refugee resettlement is common practice and has been for years. Since 1975, the ORR has resettled over 3 million refugees. Despite Barletta’s promises, it remains generally accepted that governors lack the power to refuse refugees.

To learn more about this blog post, or if you have any other immigration concerns, please feel free to contact me at rglahoud@norris-law.com or (484) 544-0022.

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