AJC fact checks viral video of immigrants at airport, finds no trafficking

A Georgia state senator called it “secret trafficking.” A Fox News host called it “shady business.” Here’s what’s going on at Hartsfield-Jackson.
08/19/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — A group of immigrants and asylum seekers follow volunteers as they are guided through the domestic terminal at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Thursday, August 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

08/19/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — A group of immigrants and asylum seekers follow volunteers as they are guided through the domestic terminal at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Thursday, August 19, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after publication.

A group of Georgia volunteers that has helped immigrants navigate Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport since 2020 was cast as a human trafficking operation in social media posts by a Georgia state senator.

On Jan. 31, Sen. Colton Moore visited a room on the second floor of the Atlanta airport’s domestic terminal, where a local nonprofit assists immigrants who have been cleared to fly. He filmed himself asking questions to a volunteer about who the immigrants were.

In a subsequent tweet about his experience, Moore, a Trenton Republican, said he uncovered a “human trafficking operation of unimaginable size” and that Georgia “borders are being breached.” The post went viral. Three days later, the state senator was interviewed on national television by Fox News’ Lawrence Jones III about Hartsfield-Jackson’s “hidden room.”

“Some shady business going down,” Jones said at the end of the segment.

Despite the recent surge in attention, the immigrant assistance at the Atlanta airport isn’t new. Nor does it have connections to human trafficking. Managed by the nonprofit Team Libertad, volunteers like the one filmed by Moore welcome immigrants who get dropped off at the airport by staff from Stewart Detention Center, a South Georgia immigrant jail. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a profile of this group of volunteers’ work at the airport in 2021, when the nonprofit at the helm was called Casa Alterna.

The immigrants the group helps were held at Stewart after crossing the Mexico border. They are allowed to travel to join families and friends across the U.S. Volunteers help them navigate the airport and board their flights.

“We are very proud of their professionalism,” Andrea Espinoza, program coordinator at Team Libertad, said of the volunteers caught on Moore’s camera.

“Team Libertad is proud to offer this volunteer service and being a friendly and helpful presence in Atlanta, the city too busy to hate.”

In his tweet, Moore called the immigrants at the airport “illegal aliens.” In the video he shot, a Team Libertad volunteer called them “recently documented.”

In truth, the former Stewart detainees are unauthorized immigrants who were taken in by U.S. border authorities. They are in deportation proceedings, and are released on the condition that they attend regular check-ins with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They must ultimately show up to immigration court, where they can make a case to be allowed to stay in the U.S. Because of big backlogs of cases in immigration courts countrywide, the immigrants will probably be able to live in the country for years.

Moore did not respond to calls from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking comment for this report.

Moore filed a complaint with the police saying he was stopped from taking a phone video by a uniformed man whom he says was affiliated with the U.S. military. On social media, he claimed that the military was guarding the migrants. Espinoza says that the uniformed man just happened to be near the room Team Libertad uses — the military service nonprofit United Service Organizations has an office in that part of the airport.

Espinoza said her group does not collaborate with law enforcement agencies. In a statement, a Hartsfield-Jackson representative confirmed that account. “At no time does the United States military provide protection or assistance,” the airport representative wrote, adding that migrants are never housed at the airport and that “at no time are these operations hidden or kept secret from the public.”

In a report on the incident submitted to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office from Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA), it is noted that Moore’s “interpretation of a room being protected by the military was a complete misunderstanding of the situation.”

In the report, GEMA director James Stallings writes that, aside from Team Libertad, only two other government offices were notified by federal immigration authorities of the group of migrants’ release from Stewart: the Atlanta Mayor’s office and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) .

“Neither the Office of the Governor nor his Office of Homeland Security were notified of the intended movement of these individuals,” the report states.

It’s been a busy start to the year for Team Libertad. According to Espinoza, the organization provided assistance to 262 immigrants released from Stewart in January, compared with 121 in December and 123 in November.

Only a small percentage of the immigrants dropped off at the airport choose to stay in Georgia. The overwhelming majority board flights to cities across the U.S. The cost of the flights are covered by relatives or friends, who often have to pay steep, last-minute prices because immigrants are only given a few days’ notice before being released.

Despite their lack of legal status and state-issued IDs, immigrants can board flights in the U.S. because TSA accepts alternative documentation, including forms and notices issued by immigration authorities.

A spokesman for CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates the Stewart Detention Center, deferred to ICE for answers to questions about the pace of releases. According to ICE’s Atlanta field office, the “increase in releases” from Stewart “is relative to the number of noncitizens being transferred” there from other parts of the country.

“This correlates to the high number of noncitizens being encountered at the Southwest Border,” added Enforcement and Removal Operations Field Office Director Sean Ervin in a statement.

In December, U.S. Border Patrol agents processed over 225,000 people who illegally crossed the southern border, more than in any other month in the agency’s history.

Among the provisions of a proposed border deal package unveiled by the U.S. Senate on Sunday is a measure that would give presidents expanded powers to immediately expel immigrants, but the bill seems poised to fail in the Republican-controlled House.

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